Monday 13 January 2020 5:04 am

DEBATE: Is there any real benefit to food brands jumping on Veganuary?

Mike Foster is founder and creative director of Straight Forward Design.
and Benedict Spence
Benedict Spence is a freelance writer. He is on Twitter @BenedictSpence

­From Greggs to Burger King, the ‘Veganuary’ movement is quickly gaining members — but is there any real benefit to food brands that jump on the plant-based bandwagon?

YES, says Mike Foster, founder and creative director of Straight Forward Design.

Just ask Greggs. Its vegan sausage roll, launched during Veganuary 2019, is the bakery chain’s biggest product launch in five years and helped boost profits by 58 per cent in the first half of last year. And 2020’s plant-based steak bake looks set to make similar waves. 

Around 350,000 people signed up for Veganuary this year, vowing to cut out all meat and dairy products — that’s 100,000 more than last year. Many thousands more take part without officially making the pledge.

More and more of us are cutting down on the amount of animal protein we consume and seeking out vegetarian, vegan and plant-based alternatives, so embracing the Veganuary movement does make sense for a lot of brands. According to research by Kantar, we consumed 3.6m fewer animals in the first six months of 2019 in the UK, and the plant-based market is expected to exceed £650m by 2021. Why wouldn’t you want to get involved? 

But brands jumping in need to bear in mind that this is a diverse and complex market. In fact, many argue that it is flexitarians who are driving the plant-based revolution, not vegans or vegetarians. 

So, while meat sales fell by £184.6m last year (according to an annual review by The Grocer), it’s important to remember that people cut back or abstain from animal protein for myriad reasons: their health, the environment, sustainability, taste preference, faith, ethics, and animal welfare.

To respond to this expanding and mixed consumer base, “strict” vegan messaging might not always be appropriate for brands. Quorn illustrates the point perfectly. When it came out in 1985, the vast majority of its consumers were vegetarian. Now, according to chief executive Kevin Brennan, 75 per cent are meat-reducers.

Controversy seems to arise when a product launched during Veganuary doesn’t pass muster as vegan, or even vegetarian for that matter. When Burger King released its 100 per cent plant-based Rebel Whopper at the beginning of the month, it caused a bit of a stir because it isn’t suitable for vegans or vegetarians due to the fact that it’s cooked on the same griddle as the chain’s meat patties.

While it’s easy to understand why the vegan movement might see this as a missed opportunity, one could argue that if just a small percentage of the world’s fast-food consumers went meat-free now and again, it would probably have a greater impact on meat consumption levels than all the vegan brands put together. 

So, while it’s clear that ordering food from a fast-food chain poses an ethical dilemma for many vegans, getting meat-reducers on board is important as, ultimately, that’s what’s going to drive down our reliance on animal protein, which will be better for our health, animal welfare, and the environment.

Veganuary is a great opportunity to shine a light on the issues associated with animal protein consumption, and it has led to food manufacturers and supermarkets bolstering their ranges to meet demand. If it’s to have as big an impact as possible, it needs to embrace flexitarianism, too. But let’s not call it Flexitarianuary.

NO, says Benedict Spence, a freelance writer and former PR consultant. 

Human progress is a story of conflict — above all, conflict within. Without our thirst for consumption, we could not move forward, but human achievements only happen when that drive is tempered by discipline — an unnatural quality man devised and implemented, against his nature, preventing him from overreaching. 

These two things — the animalistic need for more and the otherworldly power to resist — are what drive us. In balance, they make our species unique, and allow us to overcome the natural feast and famine cycle of nature. Imbalance is damaging.

Veganism appeals to restraint. It tells man he does not need meat for ethical and existential reasons; that he should shun something he has been hardwired to seek, for the good of animals and the planet.

The reasoning behind it is sound — we have been so successful we now require unprecedented quantities of meat to sate our appetites, at great cost to the planet and animals we subsist on. Our restraint in other areas has allowed us to reach a stage where the only limit to how much we consume is how much money we have.

That’s where Veganuary comes in — the idea that we can, through restraint, row back the damage wrought by our hunger. 

The problem is that veganism, and its adherents, are by definition strict, and the goal — to eradicate all animal-based products — goes against both artificial and natural practice. It is not temporary restraint they want — it is permanent.

Most people can see through it. Some dismiss it as another fad to be ignored. But more see the absolutist views of many vegans and know that the movement is an effort to normalise and promote an ideology that wishes to take away a healthy, pleasure-inducing facet of life. 

In an age where people are fed up of being lectured at by the morally pure, they won’t give into something they see as yet another move towards puritan control.

Endorsements by food brands of Veganuary may make headway with some, but companies like KFC will never win over vegans themselves in meaningful numbers, while normal people see these attempts to cash in on this social movement for what they are: marketing gimmicks. 

Besides, most people won’t be tempted to try the vegan option, when they know full-well that the meat option will be better. 

To cut animal products out of all our lives would mean changes in lifestyle that most people don’t want, and that aren’t necessary to reduce animal suffering or protect the environment. The same human conflict that got us here is the one driving innovation, like artificial meat. It is technological progress like this that will end the mass slaughter of animals, not abstinence. 

The companies that invest in such innovation, and provide what consumers actually want, are the ones who will be rewarded. 

The use of animals in our lives amounts to a world of sin. But without a little sin to reward saintliness, there’s not much point to saintliness in the first place.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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