A few months ago a Veganfest was held in Delhi. It was attended by hundreds of young, affluent, well read and enthusiastic people. The speakers were from all over the world. But each one represented a company that was making vegan products : mock meat, cosmetics etc. There were no philosophers, no one to define what veganism could and should be. It was a consumer event.
That is what worries me about the rapidly spreading vegan movement. It is simply about buying “something else”. It was meant to be transformative, something that would make the world a gentler, happier place, save animals and reduce suffering. Instead it turned out to be yet another fashion statement.
Let us look at the impact of veganism on the food industry. If 5% of the US and Britain are vegans, then meat consumption should have dropped by that amount. Instead it has increased by 10%.
In fact, the meat industry has embraced veganism as another way to make a quick buck. All meat chains have added a few vegan items to their menus. No restaurant has lost any customer due to veganism (which they should have), instead they have added new ones. Vegans go to Mc Donald’s and order a vegan burger – which helps keep Mc Donald’s profits rolling so that they can kill more animals and make more meat burgers. Look at the economics. Greggs is a meat sausage roll company. They started a vegan sausage roll and their profits went up by 58%. But if customers were simply switching from the meat to the plant-based sausage roll, profits would have stayed the same. Has their meat production dropped? Not by one roll.
Papa John’s, the meat and dairy pizza chain, has also seen a boost from its vegan “sheese” range which it launched on the same day as its hotdog version - “Our vegan customers like to share on social media how happy they are that we are catering for them.”
Every supermarket has opened a vegan section. But it is nothing compared to their meat, cheese and dairy sections. Ice cream giants have non dairy ice cream, but they also sell dairy ice cream. Burger King now has a vegan burger. Has this changed the people eating meat burgers? No. Burger King customers continue to buy beef burgers. But now vegans and vegetarians come through the doors too. They have simply widened their customer base, not changed habits or spending choices. The vegan movement, that should be doing all it can to put animal killers out of business, is now handing over its money to them. Do Burger King, Mc Donald’s and KFC have a special fund into which they put vegan money in order to rescue animals, or clean up the planet? No, the core business of these corporations is animal slaughter for food. By financially supporting them, all vegans do is fund their ability to continue their environmentally damaging meals. If a burger chain offers one vegan option, you are not ‘flexing your vegan muscles’ by giving them your money. You are falling into their capitalist trap. Likewise, giving money to leather boot companies that also have boots made of polyurethane plastic in every colour. The company that sells both has now doubled its sales in leather.
Vegans seem to believe that we can simply spend our way to animal liberation and saving the planet. All you have to do is descend on supermarkets and restaurant chains, stuff your trolleys and stomachs with vegan products and suddenly the world will become a better place for all species. But you don’t end exploitation by handing your money to exploiters. All you do is bankroll further exploitation. Vegans are not here to make the shopping aisles bigger, but to end exploitation. You cannot spend your way to paradise.
This emphasis on buying different versions of the same products, from the same companies, has led to masses of clever advertising jugglery by companies. All the things that were always vegan, now have a vegan label on them : vegan beer, vegan sofas, even a vegan massage. Something that was called a soya protein shake is now a vegan protein shake. More restaurants, more clothes, more brands of cosmetics. Basically, it is just “greenwashing”.
For instance, Body Shop is where rich vegans buy their cosmetics from. But Body Shop is owned by L’Oreal, one of the largest testers of animals in the cosmetic world. Body Shop is simply their outlet to capture the vegan consumer. Dairy-free ice-cream from Ben & Jerry’s may sound good, but it is owned by Unilever, the villains of vivisection.
That vegans are being taken for a ride, on the “vegan consumer train”, is obvious. Last year Daiya, the maker of vegan cheeses, sold their company to a Japanese pharmaceutical company that tortures animals for “research.” So many companies have built their business on veganism and then sold out to larger non-vegan conglomerates. Companies don’t care about the rights of animals, they care about the wallets of their owners. Corporations view the earth, nonhumans and humans, as capital to profit from and exploit.
Vegfests should not be simply about food, community and entertainment. Veganism is not a trendy lifestyle, or something that you can show off with to other people at social events. Today, vegan magazines are just about food recipes and advertisers: clothing, travel, cosmetics. Not a single magazine or even blog, undertakes to grapple with the real issues of veganism – education, government policies, critical thinking, speciesist language (you pig/dog/swine !) capitalism, non human rights, the animal industrial complex. Should our Indian exports be solely based on meat/eggs and milk?
Veganism is now the 21st century version of California’s Haight –Ashbury hippie cult. Handled in an irresponsible style, and quickly seen as a drug fuelled protest, this serious anti war movement of the 60s was short-lived. Veganism now is seen as a temporary fad adopted by youthful, rebellious, teenagers in search of “self expression”. Like all fads it, unfortunately, belongs to a teenage world and will be outgrown in adulthood.
Going vegan is one tool which can be used to undermine the huge impact commercial animal agriculture has on our planet’s health, climate and biodiversity. But the simple eating of vegan food alone isn’t necessarily going to undermine these practices. What we eat, how it is produced, and the amount we consume, all are questions that need to be answered as we transform food production. These questions are not answered when our dietary choices boil down to choosing the latest cool vegan option. Vegans needs to be wary about how the switch to plant-based diets can be easily incorporated into existing unsustainable food systems, making it not the lifestyle of ecological warriors but simply another mainstream consumer choice.