Veganism: How a maligned movement went mainstream

By Caroline Lowbridge
BBC News

  • Published
Photos of vegan food from InstagramImage source, Instagram / Ayupmockduck
Image caption,
Vegan food photos on Instagram have been credited with helping to spread the movement

Malnourished, sanctimonious, hemp-clad, sandal-wearing, bearded, animal-cuddling, lentil-munching hippies. This has been the image of vegans for a long time, but a new generation is challenging the stereotypes. How has social media taken such a maligned movement and helped make 2017 the year veganism went mainstream?

It's the word that has launched millions upon millions of hashtagged Instagram photos - vegan.

Yet there were just a few people present when woodwork teacher Donald Watson, a member of the Leicester Vegetarian Society, called a meeting in 1944 and settled on the term.

They took the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian" to make "veg-an" because it marked, in Mr Watson's words, "the beginning and end of vegetarian".

Image source, Vegan Society
Image caption,
Vegan Society founder Donald Watson produced the first copy of the Vegan News in 1944

If they had opted for one of the other suggestions then countless Instagrammers could now be hashtagging their photos with #benevore #vitan #dairyban #sanivore or #beaumangeur.

Others had abstained from eating and using animal products before the term vegan was coined, but giving the movement a name and founding the Vegan Society helped it to spread.

Image caption,
The Vegan Society was featured in a 1976 episode of the BBC's Open Door series

Back then, decades before the invention of home computers, Mr Watson produced newsletters called "Vegan News", laboriously running pages through a duplicating machine by hand and stapling them together.

He told an interviewer: "I'd limited the number of people, who subscribed their five shillings a year, to 500, because I couldn't cope with a bigger number."

What impact has the internet had?

Image source, Monami Frost
Image caption,
Monami Frost's husband and daughter are vegan too

Now, of course, vegans like Monami Frost can reach thousands and even millions of people in a few seconds, by uploading a photo or video from their phone.

"I started my YouTube channel as just another way to connect more with the people that follow me," says the 23-year-old, who already had a popular Instagram account before she became a YouTuber.

"I always wanted to show that I am just like everyone else, just a young mum that loves tattoos, loves her family, loves her vegan lifestyle and wants to share that with everyone and share some cooking videos."

Image source, Monami Frost
Image caption,
Monami Frost said eating vegan food had resulted in "many positive changes" in her health

Monami has 1.4 million followers on Instagram and more than 570,000 subscribers on YouTube. Her most popular video about veganism features her daughter Gabriela talking about what she eats in a day and has attracted more than 800,000 views.

She is originally from Riga in Latvia but moved to Liverpool when she was 16, and has been rated as the second most influential vegan creator in the UK by Tubular, which analyses data about videos posted on social media platforms.

Every day she gets messages from people telling her how she inspired them to go vegan, or people walking up to her in the street.

"It is just mind blowing for me, that I have helped someone change their life and at the same time save so many animals' lives," she says.

Image source, Monami Frost
Image caption,
Vegan "influencer" Monami Frost posts videos about her lifestyle on YouTube

In the past, vegans abstained from animal products mainly for ethical reasons but people are increasingly making the switch for health reasons, including many vegan athletes.

Monami admits that she too was motivated by health when she and her husband became vegan almost four years ago.

"We were really concentrating on eating only plant-based whole foods and making everything from scratch," she says.

"Right after a week or two we noticed so many positive changes."

Image source, Monami Frost
Image caption,
Monami's recipes include this "creamy" ramen, which is made using cashew milk instead of dairy cream

However, as they did more research into animal agriculture they became "ethical vegans".

"Once we learned more about what animals go through then we realised how important it is to fight for the animals and educate some people and help them open their eyes to the reality," she says.

"Now I can say that I am vegan for the animals. I am trying to be the voice for the voiceless."

Who watches vegan videos on YouTube?

Image caption,
Monami Frost - a young woman - mirrors her YouTube audience

Monami's gender and age reflect the typical audience that engages with vegan content on YouTube - namely young women.

"The core audience on YouTube engaging with vegan content are women aged 18-26, making up 36% of all engagements globally," says Denis Crushell, vice president of Europe for Tubular.

"Audiences who watch veganism videos also tend to watch videos related to health, nutrition, dieting and fitness as well as channels which publish food and drink, beauty and entertainment content."

Image caption,
Analysis by Tubular shows that young women are the biggest audience engaging with veganism content on YouTube

Monami is also typical of influential vegan YouTubers in that her channel is not just about veganism.

"Many of the most influential vegan creators don't create content solely about veganism - they have built a large audience from publishing other types of content," says Mr Crushell.

"For example, robinbirrell mostly publishes entertainment content."

The US is the biggest consumer of veganism content but the UK also has a large vegan audience. In the past 90 days on YouTube, 6% of all veganism content globally was consumed by audiences located in the UK.

Is veganism growing in real life?

Media caption,

What happens when a football club goes vegan?

The Vegan Society thinks the rise of veganism online is mirrored in the real world, and describes veganism as "the fastest growing lifestyle movement".

In 2016 it commissioned research by Ipsos Mori which suggested there were at least 542,000 people - or 1.05% of the 15 and over population in England, Scotland and Wales - following a vegan diet.

Ten years before the estimated number of vegans was just 150,000.

Close to half - 42% - of all vegans were in the 15-34 age category, compared to just 14% of people who were over 65, so the Vegan Society predicts veganism will continue to grow in future as it continues to be adopted by younger generations.

Image source, Getty Images
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Celebrities like Beyoncé have helped make vegan or plant-based diets aspirational, according to the Vegan Society

"We did a survey where we asked people about their perceptions of veganism and found that non-vegans actually often said that they admired vegans," says Samantha Calvert from the Vegan Society.

"That wouldn't have been the case 20 or 30 years ago. People would have described vegans as extreme and unnecessary. 'Taking it too far' would have been the expression.

"Now we're a group of people that people feel are something to admire and I think there's been a cultural shift in that sense."

Image source, Miley Cyrus / Instagram
Image caption,
"Vegan for life" Miley Cyrus has a tattoo of the Vegan Society trademark on her left arm

She believes celebrities like Beyoncé and Jay Z - who have dabbled with plant-based diets - and Miley Cyrus - who has the Vegan Society's trademark tattooed on her left arm - helped kickstart this change in perception.

"It was suddenly being associated with the celebrities, with the successful people, with the beautiful people," she says.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Actress Natalie Portman launched a range of vegan footwear

"There are other things that are also having an impact as well. The availability of more vegan food in restaurants, the fact that food is more clearly labelled, all the beautiful photographs of vegan food on Instagram.

"A lot of young people are very aware of environmental issues and are making the change for that reason. I think people are more aware there are so many reasons to be vegan now."

Veganism as a new year resolution

Image source, Veganuary
Image caption,
Veganuary has many celebrity ambassadors including food writer Jack Monroe, broadcaster Sarah-Jane Crawford and comedian Carl Donnelly

January is traditionally a time for new beginnings and resolutions and the Veganuary campaign taps into this.

It challenges people to try veganism for one month in the hope they will either give up or reduce their consumption of animal products permanently once January is over.

The idea was thought up by vegan couple Jane Land and Matthew Glover in autumn 2013, while having a wine-fuelled discussion about Movember and how a similar campaign could reduce animal suffering.

Image source,
Image caption,
This breakfast burrito features in series of recipe videos being put out by Veganuary in 2018

Jane thought Matthew was slurring his words when he said "Ve-gan-u-ary".

"Maybe he was," says Jane, "but it actually made sense."

Within a couple of months they had created the brand and a website, and 3,300 people signed up for Veganuary 2014.

By 2017 this had grown to 59,500, and due to "the number of vegans rising exponentially" Jane expects 150,000 people to participate in Veganuary 2018.

Image source, Veganuary
Image caption,
Vegan couple Jane Land and Matthew Glover based Veganuary on the Movember movement

Surprisingly, Veganuary survey results suggest that many meat eaters are converting straight to veganism, whereas in the past, vegetarianism was the traditional route into veganism.

Of the 59,500 people who signed up for 2017, the majority - 44% - were meat eaters, while 38% were vegetarian and 18% were pescetarian.

At the end of the month, 77% said they had eaten only vegan food in January, and 67% said they intended to stay vegan.

Image source,
Image caption,
Veganuary has teamed up with the website Wicked Healthy to encourage people to cook vegan food like this

"We know that people who change a behaviour for a month find it easier to change habits in the long term," says Matthew.

"January seemed like the logical choice for us, with people committing to new year's resolutions and wanting to improve their lives and help others."

Is it easier to be vegan now?

Image caption,
Brands previously associated with dairy products - like Pizza Express, Ben and Jerry's and Bailey's - now offer vegan alternatives

More vegans means more demand for vegan products in shops and restaurants.

In the past, vegans had to turn to smaller, specialist and often independent businesses, but now big companies are supplying the demand too.

Image source, Instagram/fatgayvegan
Image caption,
Sean O'Callaghan highlights vegan products on his Instagram page

"Having been vegan for coming up to 20 years, I can tell you I feel as though I'm living in some futuristic dreamscape as far as availability of vegan products goes," says Sean O'Callaghan, also known as blogger Fat Gay Vegan.

"The most noticeable change would definitely be the extreme commodification of veganism by major retailers who have seen the profits to be made by selling plant-based foods on a large scale.

"Of course the ease with which you can buy plant milks and vegan cheese means life in the UK for vegans is less hassle. Even mainstream restaurant chains are falling over themselves to offer vegan menus."

Image source, BBC/Violife
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Vegan cheese has improved since the 1970s, as shown (left) in a 1976 episode of the BBC's Open Door programme about veganism

Marks & Spencer says that vegan products are one of the biggest requests it receives from its customers.

"We have expanded our vegan selection due to an increased demand from our customers, who have been telling us that they are interested in trying more vegan food and drink," said James Newton Brown, head of product development.

M&S has changed its labelling so that vegetarian products suitable for vegans are now specifically labelled as vegan.

So has Sainsbury's, which also expanded its range of own-label vegan cheese, temporarily renamed "Gary" after a Facebook rant by a "real cheese fan" went viral.

Image source, M&S
Image caption,
Marks & Spencer has increased it range of vegan convenience foods due to customer demand

"At one time vegan food had this reputation for being rather expensive specialist stuff, whereas you can buy mince pies for 89p or something in Asda that carry our trademark," says Samantha Calvert.

"One of the barriers still is that people feel the change will be difficult for them, and the easier we make that I think the more people will become vegan.

"The easier it gets, the more people will feel that they can become vegan."

Is veganism a fad or a permanent shift?

Image source, Fat Gay Vegan
Image caption,
Sean O'Callaghan, also known as blogger Fat Gay Vegan, believes veganism has been "cemented as a permanent aspect of our society"

Fat Gay Vegan blogger Sean describes 2017 as "the year veganism broke through to the broader mainstream in ways we have never seen before".

"I'm not sure a day went by during the year where at least one mainstream newspaper wasn't reporting on vegan advancements," he says.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
"It feels more like it might be here to stay, that this is something that's sticking," says Samantha Calvert

But while veganism seems to have exploded in 2017, Samantha from the Vegan Society said this followed a steady growth over more than five years.

"If you had asked me in 2012 I would have thought that maybe by now it would be calming down, that people would have moved on to another trend," she says.

"You tend to expect these things to ebb and flow but they don't usually last this long and that's been the interesting thing."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron is releasing a veganism documentary in 2018

The Vegan Society has been running something called the Vegan Pledge since 2008, where it helps people become vegan in 30 days.

Their statistics show that most people who complete the pledge remain vegan; for example 82% of people who did so in 2014 are still vegan now and 14% are trying to be vegan.

"It feels more like it might be here to stay, that this is something that's sticking rather than just being something that's trendy for a few years and then people move on to the next new thing," says Samantha.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Sean O'Callaghan believes "more of us will make the switch" to veganism

Sean agrees with her.

"2017 was the year where veganism was cemented as a permanent aspect of our society," he says.

"Veganism is here to stay. I meet thousands of people every year who have committed themselves to the lifestyle and this number is not going to slow down.

"The more aware we are of how our consumer actions affect the world around us, the more of us will make the switch."

Image source, Vegan Society
Image caption,
Samantha Calvert said it is "incredible" that the movement started by Donald Watson has had so much of an impact

Vegan Society founder Donald Watson died at the age of 95 in 2005 but his legacy lives on.

"He always said that he outlived all of his critics because when he was told that veganism would be the end of him," says Samantha.

"Every time anyone uses the word vegan, and any time someone decides to call something vegan on their menu or whatever, that's that group of 25 people who founded the Vegan Society.

"It seems incredible really that something so small can have so much of an impact."

Recipes and resources

Image source, Veganuary

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