Evidence of our diet’s impact on the planet has come into sharp focus in recent years. We know now that animal agriculture is a leading driver of climate breakdown, deforestation and ecocide, while polluting earth, air and waterways.
Much ocean plastic pollution is abandoned lost fishing gear, a fact that has prompted campaigners like Paul de Gelder to ask: why focus on ending plastic straw use to save fish when we could stop eating fish to save fish?
Vegan Food & Living recently conducted a survey of 8,300 vegans to better understand who is going vegan and why, the issues they face and the needs they have.
First, we wanted to know exactly how many people become vegan for environmental reasons.
We found that, overall, animal welfare remains the most influential factor, with 71 percent citing that as their main reason.
However, things are changing. Among those who have been vegan for more than five years, 26 percent of people cite the environment as their main motivation but for those who have become vegan within the past year, that figure rises to 39 per cent. It seems the ecological message is starting to hit home.
With research consistently indicating that a whole food plant-based diet can prevent, halt and even reverse some of our biggest killers, an increasing proportion of vegans are citing health as their key motivator.
For those who became vegan 6-12 months prior to the survey, 23 percent said their health was the main reason; among those who had become vegan in the preceding six months, that had risen to 36 per cent.
The massive increase in people becoming vegan over the past five years is undoubtedly connected to the popularity of Veganuary, which in 2019 saw 250,000 people register to take the month-long plant-based pledge.
Veganuary’s own surveys suggest that around half of those who try vegan for January stay vegan afterwards, but there is no detailed data on numbers who lapse.
Our survey could not yield this information, yet it does suggest three issues that could plausibly lead to recidivism among environmental vegans: packaging, cost and the food itself.
As the scale and impact of human waste has become apparent, a whole movement of zero waste campaigners has sprung up and, unsurprisingly perhaps, it often goes hand-in-hand with veganism.
For fledgling vegans inspired by the environment, some of the food packaging can be an issue.
Are vegan foods more heavily packaged than non-vegan foods? No, I don’t think so. But first, there is a temptation to try all the ready-made vegan items when people start on this journey.
It’s natural to want to do that but, as they simultaneously learn more about the environment, it is inevitable that packaging will become an issue.
Since there are currently fewer options for vegans, they do not always have the ability to choose minimally packaged options.
For example, a non-vegan wishing to reduce their waste can buy butter wrapped in one piece of foil or paper, but the dairy-free margarines sold in supermarkets all come in plastic tubs. A connecting issue is that much organic produce comes more heavily packaged than non-organic.
Manufacturers and retailers must do better so that customers whose shopping preferences are based on environmental impact don’t have to choose between boycotting pesticides, plastic and animal products.
Around 56 percent of our survey respondents said that they thought vegan alternatives were more expensive than their animal-based counterparts and found it unfair.
This compared to 17 percent who agreed that they were more expensive, but they were happy to pay extra because they understood the reasons why.
Interestingly, among the ‘vegan curious’ – those just dipping their toe into veganism – the figure rose sharply. Here, 65 percent found this increased cost unfair and indicated a lack of understanding, and even some resentfulness.
We believe that retailers should either make prices comparable to non-vegan alternatives or educate consumers as to why they’re paying more. After all, there could be a good reason!
As a good example of this we should compare Elmlea, which recently bought-out vegan versions of its single and double long-life creams, and Galaxy, which around the same time released its first vegan chocolate.
The Elmlea creams were priced exactly the same as the dairy versions and were met with incredible levels of excitement. They’d won people over even before anyone had tasted it!
When Mars released three vegan Galaxy bars there were similar levels of excitement but while the taste was lauded, the price was questioned.
Where the dairy version is priced at 1.50 for a 135g bar, the vegan chocolate costs £3 for a 100g bar. What was missing from their messaging was that part of the additional cost could be that the bars are wrapped in Natureflex – a compostable film made from wood fibre which quickly breaks down in home composting.
This should be a huge selling point for environmental vegans, and yet hardly anyone knew.
People should not be punished for making the right choice. In order to encourage people to become vegan and help them stay vegan, there must be a great range of delicious and easily accessible vegan foods.
The plant-based food market is currently booming and in many ways things are improving fast. Our survey found that 19 percent of people classed both Tesco and Sainsbury’s as very good for vegans, with a further 40 percent classing them both as good.
Not every retailer fared so well, with just 2 percent classing both Aldi and Lidl as very good.
In terms of chain restaurants, those that offer a good variety of vegan options in keeping with the main menu tend to do best. Here, Wagamama was a clear favourite, with Zizzi and Pizza Express also proving popular.
Eating out as a vegan remains a key concern for new vegans according to Veganuary, and it is clear that there is still room for improvement.
For manufacturers, it is also a mixed bag. Around 84 percent of people think there is a good selection of plant milks available, but just 22 percent say that vegan cheese is any good.
Almost half would like to see a greater choice of ready-made sandwiches.
Our survey suggests that an increasing number of people are choosing to become vegan in order to reduce their impact on our planet, but there are issues that could deter them from trying or that fail to keep them vegan after the honeymoon period.
For the sake of our planet, those of us in the western world must move towards a fully plant-based diet, and we need industry to incentivise this.
Increasing choice, improving provision and looking at both cost and packaging would go some way to helping people take this important step and stick with it.
Sally FitzGerald is editor of Vegan Food & Living.