By Carlinhos Manuel Gomes
It’s commonplace that as we ring in a new year, we make efforts to better ourselves through crafting resolutions, setting ourselves new goals, and turning over new leaves. Leaving 2017 behind us and ushering in 2018, the first month of the year brings us an interesting collection of abstinence-themed challenges- often with equally interesting portmanteaus. Alongside the usual suspect of Dry January, Veganuary is becoming increasingly popular. Now in its 5th year, and snowballing a tremendous 3600% since its inaugural year- it is worth reflecting on the campaign, considering its impact and what this means for veganism.
It’s impossible to underestimate veganism’s success in recent years- according to the Vegan Society, there are over half a million vegans in Britain, some 350% more than there were just a decade before. Veganism’s progression from a fringe movement to one of the UK’s most rapidly growing lifestyles is nothing short of a triumph for animal welfare, public health and environmentalism. It wouldn’t be out of place to say that a cultural shift is taking place; given that more and more Brits are making an effort to buy less meat, chose meat free options when dining out and check that toiletries aren’t tested on animals, thus it is hard to deny veganism’s impact on wider society and how we regard the role of animals in our lives.
Through my own experiences as a student at university, I see this change and progress myself: many afternoons spent in my freshman year helping excited housemates reimagine old favourite recipes into dairy-free dishes, bake sales with sunken (but delicious) cupcakes without egg, and sandwiches in the campus convenience store with various, plant based fillings. I’ve met countless other passionate vegans, attended protests and festivals alike and find myself marveling at just how great a number of people there are who have committed to eschewing animal product from their lives. Not one day passes where I’m not excited by friends testing the waters, asking ‘what kind of milk would go best in my coffee?’, and in Veganuary especially I see this adventurous and compassionate spirit in motion.
As one would expect, as the movement has gained momentum, veganism has become increasingly popular to follow in recent years. The oft embarrassing need to ask restaurant staff to fish out a hefty ringbinder of allergen information is almost a thing of the past. Eating out and having clearly labelled menus isn’t just convenient, but a great help – it’s refreshing to feel catered to, and the easier and more appealing veganism is made to be, so too should its success and growth. Veganuary’s hand in this cannot be understated, I cannot be too jaded about the charity’s impact, given that I enjoyed a pretty impressive spread this month from a menu crafted especially to promote the month, which I’m almost certain wouldn’t have been provided otherwise. We’re a far cry away from the days of begrudgingly ordering many side dishes at absurd prices whilst carnist friends enjoy standard meals.
That having been said, I have some beef with the Veganuary campaign. Though the sentiment is warm, it has facilitated action by businesses which run in complete contrast to the spirit and fundamentals of the movement in order to exploit penitent January resolutions. Arguably, Veganuary doesn’t do enough to help its newcomers to fend for themselves, realise the impact of their choice and provide them with enough power to maintain their lifestyle change beyond the month of January.
Perhaps the failure for ‘Veganuary’ to continue throughout the year, is that its environmentally conscious newcomers aren’t given enough affordable and enticing products to keep them on board. Marks & Spencer’s £2.50 cauliflower steaks amongst other fare are hard to shake from memory; a glorified slice of cauliflower swaddled in obscene amounts of unnecessary, un-recyclable plastic packaging, its departure from store shelves following deserved public outrage demonstrates the attempts of supermarket chains to exploit those making lifestyle changes. Even Sainsbury’s continues to stock its own cauliflower steaks at a bizarre £1.80, at which point you may as well buy an entire cauliflower and some spices with which to season it yourself. Though other chains such as Tesco have offered inspiringly large and ambitious new ranges to their shelves, one shouldn’t overlook lazy, overpriced and disingenuous additions such as “carrot pastrami” (aka., sliced carrots) and “mushroom mince” (overpriced, chopped mushrooms).
There’s a litany of problems here: the continued (and mistaken) affiliation of veganism with being an inaccessible, expensive, middle class pursuit; the commodification of what is an empowering, political decision to eschew animal product, and an outright betrayal of the spirit of the movement. The introduction of more options which are likely to dissuade newcomers, and make them more likely to abandon their new pursuit prematurely (alongside the fact that it takes more than 31 days to beat their likely cravings) is unfortunate. The production of animal protein is nothing short of an environmental nightmare- for each 100kcal of feed put into farm animals we yield only 17-30kcal in flesh back, a terrible waste of arable land and water, responsible for some 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, and broadly responsible for deforestation in order to meet growing global demand. Needless to say, the retention of individuals testing the waters through Veganuary is essential in the pursuit of mitigating the damage we continue to do to our planet. So what should be done?
Veganuary provides newcomers to veganism with a wonderful jumping off point, and the growing success of the campaign clearly goes lengths to seeing that the lifestyle becomes increasingly easier to maintain. However, something fundamental is missing if we hope to carry over Veganuary virgins through February- an emphasis on agency and conviction. Veganism is far more than the individual choice as to what one puts in their mouth and the charity could go some ways to emphasise and acknowledge this.
Though it’s highly unlikely that someone would look at a lone slice of over-packaged cauliflower and think it’d be worth purchasing, would they also go so far as to challenge it and demand better? Though turning up our noses to ridiculous business choices which have damning consequences for our earth may eventually result in their removal, it is actively rejecting them which results in the rapid change we desperately need. It’s only through public condemnation and holding industry accountable that M&S abandoned this product, we mustn’t only put our money where our mouths are, but remember to open those mouths and make a bit of noise when the situation calls for it too. It’s to be expected that we’ll continue to be assailed with unconvincing, unattractive fare from supermarkets, but instead of this doing work to discourage new vegans, instead it should provide an impetus to demand better.
A greater push for individuals to buy their produce locally from markets works two-fold to keeping their new vegan endeavours feasible. Cheaper fare of markedly higher quality at one’s local market often forgoes packaging, travels shorter distances before being sold, and supports local agriculture workers. What Veganuary seems to miss is that one’s pursuit of this lifestyle is not a passive, individualist effort. It’s much more than exhibitionist instagram posts of exotic fruit platters or a simple 31 day foray into something different to start off the year; whether one acknowledges it or not, to deny animal product is a highly political action which transcends the simple decision to opt for soy milk today. All this rhetoric may seem lofty, but it speaks to the origins of veganism which have been all too often overlooked in the light of its recent boom- veganism is about demanding and creating lasting change together, because we are genuinely powerful and as a community can generate the change we would like to see. Last year Portugal made the provision of vegan options in public canteens law, evidence to the potential a concerted effort of active, empowered individuals can make when banding together.
If we’re to truly transform what is for too many yet another throwaway January fad into the sound foundations for a future commitment to a lifestyle which at its core is a deeply political decision to leave as light a footprint on our Earth as possible, we must infuse Veganuary not with a penitent, solitary and abstinent air, but a much more empowering sense of agency and community. Ideally, a change from Veganuary to Veganyear-y? Cheesy perhaps, but absolutely dairy free.