With the meat-free market expected to hit £658 million by 2021, in this article we investigate why the plant-based movement is becoming so popular.
According to The Vegan Society, if the world went vegan, eight million human lives could be saved by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by two thirds, and healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damage could total $1.5 trillion. With such figures to conjure with, it’s perhaps not surprising that the nation’s appetite for all things plant-based shows no sign of slowing down. At the last count, approximately 600,000 Britons identified as vegans, with research predicting that green-eaters will account for a quarter of the population by 2025.
Almost half (42%) of British vegans made the switch to a plant-based diet in 2018, the year the UK launched more animal-free products than any other country.
Since then, demand has skyrocketed; global vegan meat substitute sales hit $19.5 billion this year, while the UK meat-free market is estimated to grow from £559 million in 2016 to £658 million by 2021. But why has veganism suddenly gone mainstream? Animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health are all common reasons cited by new adopters. Certainly, the multitude of factors stacking up in veganism’s favour might help to explain why, at a time when consumers are bombarded by flash-in-the-pan diet fads, the lifestyle choice appears to be here to stay.
According to research by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, a global move to a vegan diet would avert 8.1 million premature deaths per year. In the UK, of more than 1,000 adults surveyed by Mintel, 49% of those who expressed interest at cutting their meat consumption cited health reasons as their biggest motivator – and the statistics make a compelling case.
This year, Harvard scientists discovered that eating a vegan diet can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 23%, while a study of 12,000 people by John Hopkins University found that those who ate mostly plant-based foods were 32% less likely to die from heart disease.
A staggering 92% of plant-based meals consumed in the UK in 2018 were eaten by non-vegans, showing that more people than ever before are willing to step outside their culinary comfort zones. Indeed, in January 2019, a record-breaking 250,000 Brits signed up for ‘Veganuary’, a movement that encourages people to adopt plant-based diets for the first month of the year.
And while some vegan products are more problematic to produce than others – the almonds in our nut ‘milk’ might travel thousands of miles from California before reaching our flat white, for example – on balance environmentalists agree that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way of reducing our impact on the Earth.
As a 2018 Greenpeace report put it: “Global meat and dairy production and consumption must be cut in half by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.”
The warnings of environmental catastrophe are undeniably stark, but whereas once veganism might have been loaded with extreme political connotations, today’s approach is arguably more lifestyle focused. And that’s thanks to social media, which has given the movement something of a makeover. Gone are the stereotypes of hemp-wearing activists living off lettuce; today’s green-eating brigade serve up jackfruit tacos and tempeh stir-fries alongside a host of equally appetising lifestyle content.
According to Google trends, searches for ‘veganism’ have been rising steadily since 2012 in a similar trajectory to Instagram. With more than 61 million #vegan posts, the social media platform is serving up easily-shareable fare.
“The vegan market has changed fundamentally in the last six or seven years – it’s now for everyone,” said Giles Quick, Director at market research firm Kantar Worldpanel in an interview with the BBC. “Social media has brought it to the forefront of customers’ minds, and the mainstream. It’s not seen any more as a choice for life, but as a choice for one meal, one moment, for one or two days a week.”
Long gone are the days when vegan convenience foods began and ended with a packet of Linda McCartney sausages. According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, it is estimated that one in six food products rolled out in the UK in 2018 had a vegan claim, doubling from 8% in 2015.
And more choice is fuelling consumers’ interest.
When Tesco introduced a line of 20 Wicked Kitchen vegan meals to 600 of its stores in 2018, it sold more than 2.5 million units in the first 20 weeks, which was more than double the company’s sales projections. Similarly, Sainsbury’s saw a 24% increase in customers searching for vegan products online and a 65% increase in sales of plant-based products.
High street chains from Pret A Manger to Pizza Hut are beefing up their vegan offerings, while historic brands such as Guinness – the brewer stopped using fish bladders in its brewing process for the first time in 250 years in 2017 – are adapting time-honoured recipes to make them suitable for the vegan market.
But there may still be some way to go before we all get hooked on soy lattes. Research by Mintel points to the fact that four in 10 British diners think vegan meals are boring, 41% think they are overpriced, and only one in 10 would like to see more vegan items on the menu.
However, as Paris Jordan, a Sanlam fund selector specialising in socially responsible investment, points out, supply and demand remain the key market drivers for change in consumer trends. “Convenience and availability have great strength in changing our habits and it appears that the old saying ‘build it and they will come’ rings true,” she says.
Certainly, with new product ranges flooding into supermarkets, and retailers and producers scrambling to keep up with demand, it seems as though animal-free alternatives will continue to pique our interest – and increasingly find a way onto our plates.
Sanlam Global Equity Analyst Louis Jamieson says: “We monitor changing market trends like the rise of veganism to assess whether portfolios need to be adjusted to reflect changing consumer tastes.
“We draw inspiration and ideas from thematic papers published by sell-side research providers, such as Bernstein, and look at general news reports. We also attend conferences based on particular themes to engage with analysts from industry and better understand what is happening in the market.
“But while it’s important to consider general themes, these aren’t the only factors that inform our investment choices; we don’t invest in a company just because we’ve identified a trend. We monitor the sectors in which companies we already invest in operate and keep a close eye on that – and we always make sure we have a balance in our portfolios.”