By Chiara Riezzo.
Only a few months into the new decade, the year 2020 has already consolidated a number of retail trends that have, over the past years, revolutionized both the global and the UK market. Amidst the Brexit uncertainty and anticipation of new global trade deals, retail in the UK keeps growing and changing at an unprecedented rate. Among the new consumer practices that shape this changing picture, circularity and sustainability seem to secure first place together with the new digital era. Sustainability is not just about future business practices anymore but rather about how present practices can be improved to satisfy consumer cravings for environmentally-friendly products and more transparent supply chains. Is this ‘trendy’ green consumer attitude also the reason behind the rise in vegan lifestyles?
After clarifying the original meaning and purpose of veganism, this article investigates the impact of veganism on businesses beyond the food market. By exploring veganism in its most authentic sense, this article aims to clarify that veganism was not born as a marketing strategy or as a hashtag to increase Instagram likes. Rather, it is a political movement whose commercialisation today is reflected in important changes in several sectors of the retail industry.
Before Veganuary challenges and food photography in Instagram reduced Veganism to a diet, it had originated as an extension of the concept of vegetarianism which, in turn, has deep roots in history and can be traced back to the work of several thinkers in ancient Greece. The idea of a non-dairy vegetarian diet – as we know it today – was introduced more recently by Donald Watson who, in 1944, founded The Vegan Society. The society, today, keeps operating to promote veganism which it defines as a way of life seeking to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. Such a broad definition makes it clear already that veganism is not limited to a diet. Veganism, as a lifestyle, seeks to expose the absurdity of our man-made reality which deprives other forms of life of their vitality in order to accommodate human wants. A reality that operates on the basis of human supremacy over space, time and life itself because no other form of life is regarded as of value if it is not human. A reality that forces animals to perform for human entertainment and then be killed to bring their flesh on our plates. Explained in the words of Joaquin Phoenix, the Best Actor Academy Award winner 2020, ‘we feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby’. Human supremacy has a history of violence over animals, other humans and the planet as exemplified in the destruction of the natural environment, the residues of which is later exploited as raw material for a concrete man-made jungle.
Today, Veganism embraces several purposes, ranging from the protection of animals to that of the environment and humans themselves, offering more than just an alternative nutritional regime. In fact, veganism’s implications – of both ethical and philosophical nature – touches on politics, social identity, feminism and, as anticipated above, the retail industry.
The UK economy relies heavily on the retail sector which saw a growth in February 2019 with shoppers increasing spending despite the looming prospect of Brexit uncertainty (Or it might be exactly that prospect pushing consumers to stock up before a no-deal Brexit leaves their supermarkets empty). On the one hand, household goods along with fashion, textile and footwear enjoy a strong growth while, on the other hand, such growth comes at the expense of food stores which [declined by 1.2%] over the same period of time.
Why is the UK food market undergoing a loss in sales? Is the food market failing to consider and adapt to key long-term consumer trends? Already in 2017, veganism and healthy eating have been identified among the key consumer trends in the UK casual dining market. Moreover, the exponential rise in the number of vegans, which quadrupled in Great Britain between 2014 and 2019, notably poses significant challenges and opportunities to the food market. This different approach to dining now involves consumer concerns about the effect of their eating habits on the world they live in. Such trend is confirmed by the sales of meat-free products which have been steadily increasing since 2017 and are projected to reach £658m in 2021.
These concerns, however, are not limited to the food market but also apply to the production and consumption of a wide range of FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), such as cosmetics and household products, and to the fashion industry. A significant example of how designers are trying to find a compromise between tradition and new customer needs, is the ‘vegan kilt’. Aberdonian kiltmaker Scott Wood, who adopted veganism three years ago, embarked on a journey to sustainability and vegan-friendly products. His journey started with the use of cotton and polyester viscose as a substitute to animal-derived materials for the production of the traditional kilt. He aims to provide the 600,000 vegans in the UK with a comprehensive range of vegan Highland outfit items to go with the vegan kilt, starting from the shoes up to the jacket.
This vegan revolution is not limited to the UK and is spreading globally. Especially in the U.S. whose identity is inevitability associated with the meat burger, young and innovative start-ups sprung up as a reaction to the pressure on food systems. With the intent to fight the disastrous environmental consequences of meat production and consumption, these start-ups are defining a new market by investing in plant-based food and dairy alternatives. Namely, they are defining the so-called ‘Vegan Economy’. Notably, even in the land where fast food was born, the role of climate change advocates is not going under the radar. More and more consumers are opting for meat-free products – to the extent that the meat-alternative industry is expected to constitute 10% of the global meat market in the next decade.
Will the market manage to keep pace with the vegan revolution? From fast food giant McDonald introducing vegan dippers to the multibillion dollar fashion industry hunting for the perfect vegan leather, the world of business has no option but to join the ride and face the challenge. Taking actions to efficiently meet consumer concerns about health, climate, environment and animal welfare is the only way to move forward and stay competitive in the market. Veganism is destined to be mainstream rather than a niche due to social media popularity. So, if veganism is not yet on your company’s agenda, you better move on with it before you are moved out!