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Green is the new black: why has veganism become so popular?

Madeline Smith asks why has veganism becomes so popular? This piece aims to shed some light, through interviews of those who adopt a vegan lifestyle, on the motivations of so many to turn green.

BY Madeline Smith

Anyone that uses social media will have noticed the recent tidal wave of 57 million ‘#vegan’ Instagram posts and bursts of the hashtag ‘#poweredbyplants’. What is it about a vegan diet that has caught the imagination of so many people? Some see it as a fad; the millennials trend that will go the same way as Myspace or MSN. However, speaking to those that are dedicated vegans would indicate otherwise.

“So much of what I saw in documentaries I didn't even know happened, especially in the dairy industry. It’s scary how much of it isn’t public knowledge.”

Sally Camsell

Music student Sally Camsell, 20, from Consett, Co Durham, has been vegan for three years. I spoke to Sally about what motivated her to adopt a vegan diet. “I’ve been vegan for between two and three years now. I watched documentaries like ‘Earthlings’ and just made the connection between the food on my plate and the animal that had to die for it. So much of what I saw in documentaries I didn’t even know happened, especially in the dairy industry. It’s scary how much of it isn’t public knowledge.”

“Being vegan is a lot more accepted now than it was when I first stopped eating animal products. When I first told people, I wanted to do it three or so years ago, a lot of people weren’t very understanding. Now, most people are curious and want to learn more about the diet and lifestyle, which is great. People ask me the same questions time and time again like ‘what do you eat’, so I often end up repeating my explanations!”

“Veganism is considered a philosophy; a vegan lifestyle eliminates the use of animals as a commodity in all facets of life.”

Defined by The Vegan Society, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Contrary to common belief, being a vegan is not only restricted to what diet you consume. Veganism is considered a philosophy; a vegan lifestyle eliminates the use of animals as a commodity in all facets of life. Vegan products stretch from shoes to cosmetics; even vegan tattoos have become popular.

Part-time supermarket employee Jess Burgess, 20, from Sunderland also decided to abandon all animal products two years ago after watching Shaun Monson’s hard-hitting 2005 documentary ‘Earthlings’. She says the way animals are treated “from the second they are born is disgraceful.” However, it is not only the direct exploitation of animals that concerns her. Among her other concerns is the contribution that farm animals make towards global warming, in the form of CO2 emissions but also the impact on human health. “If the whole world were to go vegan today it would massively reduce the diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, diabetes etc., and significantly reduces world hunger” she says.

Jess notes, “A meat-eater’s diet requires 17 times more land, 14 times more water and ten times more energy than that of a vegetarian, according to research published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Of the world’s approximately five billion hectares of agricultural land, 68% is used for livestock.”

With 3.5 million people in Britain now identifying as vegan, vegan culture is becoming more mainstream with the gathering speed of a runaway train and shows no signs of slowing down. With ethical food festivals such as London’s “Vegan Nights” becoming popular attractions for vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike, veganism is an accessible and exciting new branch of cultural activity in the United Kingdom. As veganism is becoming more readily accepted today, solely plant-based products such as dairy alternatives and meat substitutes are widely available in most supermarkets, and even restaurants. Marks and Spencer recently introduced a plant-based range to cater to a rapidly growing vegan market, restaurants such as Wagamama have an entirely vegan menu, and Pizza Express, Pizza Hut and Zizzi offer vegan pizzas.

So, what is it about veganism that has shaken us up? While the central themes seem to be animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health, the lifestyle seems to mean something different to each person. The whirlwind that the vegan diet has created doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, with the popularity of campaigns such as ‘Veganuary’, the month-long challenge to go vegan for January.

Art student Freya Patterson, 20, from Framwellgate, Co Durham, felt compelled to change her diet in 2014.”It came to a point where I could no longer detach the living animal from what was on my plate. I researched the dairy industry and discovered it was as cruel if not worse than the meat industry. I felt like I wasn’t practising what I believed. I have been vegan for three and a half years. People react mostly positively; veganism is much more common now than even a couple of years ago, so people are more familiar with it.”

“Sometimes people get defensive about their eating habits though as if I’m trying to be morally superior, which isn’t what is at the heart of veganism. Sometimes people suddenly become very concerned about how I am getting protein into my diet. I am vegan for the animals! I don’t believe we should feel entitled to eat/use or exploit animals’ bodies in any way if we have the option of sustainable plant-based alternatives. Compassion should be a priority for pleasure!”

Despite fear-mongering headlines such as “Veganism could be DANGEROUS for your health” in the Daily Mail and “Health warning: Vegan diet could be BAD for you” in the Daily Express, official advice has a more balanced tone. The National Health Service website states “you should be able to get most of the nutrients you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet.” However, it does also warn that an unbalanced diet could lead to a lack of essential nutrients, including calcium, iron and vitamin B12. If veganism and vegetarianism are of interest to you, there are some brilliant starting points to help you make the change. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a ‘How to go vegan’ web page, The Vegan Society and The Vegetarian Society have accessible websites full of helpful information, and the National Health Service website provides advice on how to eat well on a vegetarian or vegan diet.