Opinion: Veganuary – A marketing tool or a genuine attempt of encouraging ethical food consumption?

As a new year begins, we want to set the tone and, with very good intentions, we start the gym or even take part in dry January. It is, therefore, no wonder that Veganuary has achieved some high levels of support to kick off the new year and one’s “health-kick” on the right foot. The question is, however, is Veganuary a genuine attempt to change people attitudes in favour of ethical food consumption, or is it simply a marketing tool?

Veganism has become a serious conversation in politics, with veganism being deemed as a serious attempt to mitigate the climate crisis as well as boycott the unethical methods of meat, as well as many types of animal-based production. The Netflix documentaries of Cowspiracy and Seapiracy took social media by storm and induced critical reflection amongst many, regarding whether or not we have the moral obligation to be vegans for the sake of animal rights and/or the looming climate crisis. However, veganism is not for the faint-hearted. You can say goodbye to the ease of 20 choices in a restaurant for a plant-based burger for dinner or smashed avocado for brunch. Hummus and Oreos become your new favourite snacks. Accessing vegan products is not easy, but also because only 0.1-1% of the world is vegan and unless there is a demand by consumers, there will not be a supply of vegan alternatives. Veganuary is a chance for individuals to attempt the lifestyle while having the support of supermarkets and restaurants providing a larger selection of vegan options. It demonstrates that you can still eat your favourite foods, made with vegan alternatives, and perhaps try some new foods that might become new favourites.

Since Veganuary was started back in 2014, more than 2 million people have signed up to the non-profit as a promise to follow the pledge of trying a vegan diet (however the number of people part-taking is substantially higher, although hard to quantify). These 2 million people have saved 207,680 tonnes of Carbon dioxide and 12.4 million litres of water, and in the UK alone Veganuary 2019 saved 3.6 million animals. Clearly, there is positive evidence to encourage becoming vegan; it reduces your carbon footprint and affirms your commitment to animal rights issues. Nonetheless, do many people really part-take in Veganuary for ethical reasons? In fact, 42% of people who took part in the 2019 Veganuary did so for improving health, which is consistent with the key themes of post-Christmas weight loss and attempting to be a more moral person. For example, it has been my new year’s resolution for the past 3 years to give to charity every month and 2022 is no different. Despite these individuals successfully completing Veganuary, they have not done so on an ethical basis constituting the foundations of Veganism, and hence if sustained, would not be based on having been convinced of its moral necessity. Is this really an issue, or do people’s intentions not matter as long as they are switching to a vegan diet for the month of January? Arguably it does, only when one is committed to the wider issues of the moral wrongness of consuming animal products or the climate impacts of meat consumption, would one have the long-term grounds to sustain a vegan lifestyle beyond this single month.  

Another issue I have with Veganuary is that many foods that one will try and love in January will simply be removed in February. Although I am under no illusion that vegan demand would be sustained to the degree it is in January, still, the switch is drastic, with vegans going from perhaps six options in Veganuary to one again for the next 11 months of the year. The market doesn’t invite people to sustain veganism because after January its ease is diminished, and granted that many people’s fears of going vegan are the lack of accessibility when out to get food, it perpetuates the cycle of people committing fully for one month only. This is exemplified through the small 4% of people planning on remaining vegan after Veganuary. As previously commented, this is a real issue because demand needs to be sufficient to encourage companies to continue to produce new alternatives (and of better quality) to convince the more sceptical to try veganism. The picture is not as bleak as one might think. Indeed, the KFC Vegan Burger launched for Veganuary 2021 is now a permanent item on the menu and the McDonald’s McPlant has seen impressive success. The Veganuary campaign also launched a ‘Workplace Challenge’ with companies such as Harrods, Superdrug and Volkswagen UK taking part. The significance of this is not to be downplayed, by their endorsement of Veganuary, these institutions demonstrate that sustainability is a company commitment and value; hoping that staff exemplify these pledges in their personal life. After all, Veganuary can be seen as a single piece of a much larger puzzle to solve the issue of sustainability and the responsibility we must face in order to tackle the associated issues of climate change and provide intergenerational justice.

Veganuary has had some major success as participation has doubled every year from 2014 onwards. Despite the positive effects it can have both on the case for animal rights, climate change and driving forward vegan substitutes, I am apprehensive of the motivational factors behind many people part taking. Without a commitment to the morals encompassed in the Veganuary movement, it does very little to help aid the movement becoming large enough to lobby both governments and companies to take the demand for more ethical food production seriously. After all, 38% of people in a study of UK and US citizens still has not heard of Veganuary, so despite the positive impacts of individuals completing this monthly challenge, what the movement needs is a real commitment to the values of veganism in the hope of converting more than 4% per year.

Links for more resources

The Guardian – Veganuary set to pass 2m milestone as more firms join movement.

GWI – Veganuary 2021: the trend feeding a lifestyle change

Instagram – @weareveganuary

Earthling Ed: Vegan Educator & Public Speaker

Veganuary – Official Website

Image: kahl/ Pixabay License

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