Is Vegan a dirty word?


The exponential rise of veganism and the explosion in plant-based diets caught even the staunchest vegans unaware – even those ‘in the know’ couldn’t have predicted just how quickly the plant based movement would grow. A record 250,000 consumers took part in Veganuary 2019, more than all previous years put together, whilst over 35% of 18-24s are said to be looking to reduce their meat intake. 12% of Brits currently follow a meat-free diet, a figure that has risen and risen over the last couple of years. But is this growth set to continue, or will the bubble burst?

We’ve seen food trends fade away before. Take low fat, low salt, low sugar, paleo – it seems in trends associated with health, popularity is almost cyclical. However, with veganism, although health is a key theme and motivator, the market is unusual in being driven by three separate issues: health, ethics, and environmentalism. For that reason alone, it certainly would seem as though popularity and demand would be robust. Many argue this has been the case thus far – veganism has been growing and growing in popularity over the last five years, yet there are still those who have their doubts.

Recently, an increasing amount of brands appear to have been shying away from the ‘vegan’ label, with ‘plant-based’ being preferred as a label to describe non animal products. UK retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Tesco are spearheading this, with their Plant Kitchen and Wicked Kitchen respectively. Derek Sarno, the creator behind Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen in particular has actively moved away from ‘vegan’ as a label on his range, instead choosing ‘plant-based’ consumers as his main target audience.

But is this signalling the beginning of the end of the movement’s growth, or is it simply the beginning of a new era for the category?

Derek Sarno did himself admit to ‘not making food for vegans’, instead preferring to refer to the category as ‘plant-based’. So what exactly is the difference? Largely, ‘vegan’ consumers are those regarded as being more militant about the cause, those whose entire lifestyle focuses on avoiding animal products at all costs not just in food, but in clothing, household equipment, toiletries, or anything else which may contain animal-derived ingredients. Sarno’s intentions are not to alienate current vegan consumers – rather the intention of the plant-based label is to ‘open up’ the category to a wider range of consumers, by focusing on ‘what the products are, not what they aren’t.

‘Plant-based’ itself as a label is widely regarded as being less strict than traditional ‘veganism’, referring solely to food and drink. It is also no coincidence that the phenomenon has risen to popularity in tandem with its close neighbour, ‘flexitarianism’. Flexitarianism is where consumers look to reduce their meat/dairy/egg intake and adopt a more plant-based diet than before, but still do consume some animal products. It is the growth of the flexitarian movement which is being credited for attracting the most consumers. A recent YouGov survey, cited by Marketing Week, revealed that a huge 14% of consumers call themselves ‘flexitarian’, with a further 26% of those who call themselves meat eaters looking to actively reduce their consumption.

With this in mind, it certainly seems that although ‘vegan’ may be slowly losing popularity as a label,  plant-based continues to grow in strength, with consumers increasingly looking for ‘plant-based’ claims on packaging. Leveraging this trend is likely to prove incredibly successful for brands, manufacturers and retailers alike.

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