70 years of the Vegan Society...
The word seems to be everywhere - on TV, across social media, it is even emblazoned on outdoor posters. The current level of interest in eating vegan is unprecedented. Having spent almost 70 years in “obscurity,” it is now one of the world’s fastest growing lifestyle movements. Sam Calvert, Head of Communications at the Vegan Society, tells all about her hopes and aspirations leading the country towards a more healthy and plant based diet.
According to the Vegan Society’s Dr Sam Calvert, it is “the simplest, off the shelf diet to help the planet.” So is saving the world the reason why people are turning to it in their thousands?
Sitting in the Birmingham office, Sam explains how the change in people’s eating habits is rather more complex than we may realise. Manufacturers, seeing a new market, are making being vegan easier with ready-made products. Celebrities and social media have also made it more attractive as a healthy diet option. This upsurge in interest means that the Vegan Society can now spread their message to a much wider market.
“If you want to do something personally in your life, the single greatest thing you can do, in terms of food, is to become vegan,” says Sam. “A lot of environmental groups don’t share that message, so one of the things we have been trying to do with campaigns like ‘Plate Up for the Planet’ and ‘Grow Green’ is to reach people who are concerned about environmental issues.”
Plate Up for the Planet is a seven-day go vegan challenge which highlights how it actually reduces your impact on the environment, such as cutting CO2 emissions. The Society’s Grow Green campaign to promote animal-free farming had its first conference this year and was a sell-out. Organisations such as the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attended.
And it recently launched its first mobile phone app, VeGuide, keen to continue the momentum created by celebrities and social media. “It’s as though we spent almost our first 70 years in obscurity and have then spent the last five in the sun,” says Sam with a smile. “We’re just saying what we’ve always said and we feel the world’s caught up with it.”
The phone app is aimed at helping people go vegan over 30 days and had 10,000 downloads in the first month of launching. There are UK and US versions with plans to broaden it out in other languages. VeGuide aims to reflect the supportive ethos of the traditional Vegan Society ‘pledge’ by having well-known bloggers acting as personal guides.
Sam feels the free, no-ad app is being received well because of the way it motivates people with daily videos, information and advice to help them on their journey to becoming vegan. “The presenter meets you on day one and they take you through to day 30. They encourage you all the way. We are trying to replicate that feeling of somebody here for you.”
Projects such as the app are made possible by the Society’s main source of income, its vegan trademark. Applications from manufacturers for a licence to display the sunflower Vegan Society trademark have soared in response to the market for animal-free produce.
Veganism has now spawned a new range of products, from an array of non-dairy milks to burger substitutes that somewhat bizarrely, ‘bleed’ a beef-like red liquid. Brewers have even changed their filtration processes, cutting out fish isinglass to make their products vegan. The appetite for veganism exponentially grew about six years ago, when celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce began talking about the health benefits of wholly plant-based diets.
The ensuing social media coverage seemed to change people’s views about veganism. Previously, vegans had somewhat been treated with derision in mainstream media, Sam recalls. Surprisingly, given the rise in animal-free goods, vegans still only account for about one percent of the UK population, about 600,000 people. Other countries such as Mexico and Poland report higher percentages.
Sam says more people are trying vegan food but not actually giving up meat altogether. So, the Society’s work in promoting the virtues of veganism continues. “We’d like to see a vegan world,” says Sam, who states their aims are also about animal rights, as shown in the definition of veganism.
The Society is realistic about how this could be achieved in a world where most farming is of animals. “With the best will in the world, if you stop a van of cattle going to a slaughterhouse and say to the farmer, ‘you shouldn’t do this’, their answer is ‘what shall I do, then?’
And they’re not asking that question because they want you to tell them to give their £50,000 worth of stock away and become vegan,” says Sam. “They are saying, ‘this is what I do for a living, find me a living that’s equal in value to the animals I’m now taking to slaughter and I’ll think about it.”
Sam believes that many farmers would take a different option if it was commercially viable. Rather than farmers though, the Society specifically targets politicians on this point. “Government should be providing support and subsidy for farmers to transition to plant-based farming. It’s not enough to put all the emphasis on the public to do the work, there needs to be more government support for farmers,” she says.
With this pragmatic approach, Sam Calvert feels it is possible to convert the whole world to veganism, especially with more and more scientific studies showing the impact of meat production on the world. One such study by Oxford University last year found that animal farming takes up 83 percent of farmland but only provides 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories. Meat production is also responsible for a large majority of destruction to the Amazon rainforest as trees are cut down to grow food for livestock. The Society now has its own research arm conducting and supporting investigations, to provide statistics in support of its campaigns.
“Dispel the myths”
In spite of veganism becoming more mainstream though, myths surrounding farming of animals continue to exist. “I’ve done radio interviews with journalists who have said things like, ‘well if we didn’t eat them, we’d be overrun by them, they’d be clogging up the roads’,” says Sam. “And it’s sometimes very awkward to explain that animals are assisted to be impregnated and without that human interference, we wouldn’t have so many of them.”
If it seems like people still need to be more informed, then the Society hopes to have the resources in future to go into schools. For now, they refer people to organisations such as Animal Aid which has an education talk programme. One of the challenges faced by a non-governmental organisation that’s reliant on funding, is knowing which areas to focus on at any particular time.
“In order to do a school programme and do it well, we need a whole lot of other resources. Unlike many other organisations we are spread quite thinly. Originally we were the only vegan society in the world and if it was a vegan matter, we dealt with it,” says Sam. The Vegan Society campaigns also tend to focus around achievable gains such as getting better menu options in hospitals, care homes and schools.
“It shouldn’t be a big ask, really. It’s not about taking away other people’s choice by reducing the number of options, you’re adding one in,” says Sam, who was amazed that meat-eaters actually objected on social media to Greggs bakery offering a vegan sausage roll. But, being vegan is more than just about eating plant-based foods. Ethical vegans, as opposed to dietary ones, firmly believe that animals have rights and they avoid anything which causes not only cruelty, but any form of exploitation.
Veganism is even a protected belief under the Human Rights Act and the Society has its own vegan rights adviser.
The website www.vegansociety.com is packed with facts about the animal issues, health information and practical guidance on how to live a vegan life. With the vegan movement rightly showing no sign of slowing down, Sam feels that founder Donald Watson would be amazed to see how his determination has been rewarded.
“I never thought we would see veganism being this socially acceptable in my lifetime. I always hoped for it but I never realistically thought that it would.” Having been vegan for 24 years and vegetarian before that, Sam says she couldn’t be anything else.
Read more about the Vegan Society, and the Editor's own journey to being vegan, in the print edition of the magazine. To purchase the magazine please visit our Subscribe page HERE