In Vegan Lore, the year 2019 will forever go down in history. It was the year that the tide in the UK turned, with the food industry finally grasping that the vegan pound was an especially shiny and appealing one. While many vegan businesses had been operating independently for years, the mainstream eventually caught on, as vegan ranges flooded Britain’s biggest supermarkets – with Sainsbury’s, Tesco, ASDA, and every other major chain getting in on the action – while restaurant brands like Zizzi, Wagamama’s, and Pizza Express realised that plant-based menus would attract sales.
Though our fairly late vegan awakening trails the likes of the US and Germany, who’ve been doing this stuff for years, the UK’s embrace of plant-based eating – and, specifically, convenient plant-based eating, with vegan items like microwave meals, packet sandwiches, and frozen foods now readily available in mainstream shops – has been a long time coming. As a vegan who has been at it since 2014, and who therefore remembers a time when finding soya milk in my local supermarket felt like winning the FA Cup, I’ve thought it especially cool to see veganism becoming more widely available as a choice.
This availability steam-rolled ahead at the beginning of 2020, with fast food heavy hitters like Subway, Greggs, and KFC all launching new vegan items in the first few days of the year. Up until March, it was as if every week, another new restaurant or chain or store was releasing some new plant-based offering. That is, until restaurants and chains and stores were forced to close due to the coronavirus lockdown.
With all of the upheaval that we now know a pandemic brings, both in a personal sense and for the food landscape at large, therefore, I wanted to know if Britain’s era of the vegan had been put on pause by coronavirus. Has the pandemic affected veganism’s rise in the UK? And if so, how?
At a time of unprecedented international chaos, I can see how, even if you follow a plant-based diet usually, it might be easy to fall off the wagon head first into a cheesy pizza. One person who has had this experience is Polly*, a 29-year-old living in London. She tells me, “I’ve being eating loads of eggs, and I had some fish when I went on holiday. I think it’s basically because when life is difficult it’s easy to let your ethics slip, because you get into a mentality of treating yourself. Everything’s shit so why can’t I have this one nice thing?”
While I’m sure Polly’s not the only one, some research actually shows that over the course of the pandemic, a vegan diet has become “more attractive” to one in ten Brits, a figure which rises to one in four in the “young millennial” (21 to 30) age range. A spokesperson for the Vegan Society also tells me that a survey conducted by the organisation “found that one in five Brits have cut down on meat consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey also found that 15 percent had reduced their dairy or egg intake over the lockdown period.
There could be a number of reasons for this. The Vegan Society spokesperson explains that the data from their survey shows three main strands behind why people are opting for plant-based alternatives. These are the fact that their preferred products aren’t on the shelves, the “desire to improve the rights of animals, the environment or their own health”, and lastly, the cost of meat and dairy produce. I’d add to all of those factors something more anecdotal: many of us know from our own lives that during the strictest parts of lockdown in particular, those of us without caring responsibilities found ourselves with a bit more time on our hands than usual. It’s possible that people who had wanted to go vegan, but didn’t have the time to really think about it previously, used the lockdown as an opportunity to change their habits.
Dr. Matthew Cole, of the Open University’s School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, agrees that this is probably part of the story. He says that one reason for the findings made by the Vegan Society’s study “may be changes in people's time to research veganism, experiment with vegan cooking and order plant-based products online,” though he notes that “for many people, the pandemic has meant less time, so experiences of the pandemic are far from universal or equitable.”
Like all lifestyle choices, it’s important to remember that veganism is a social phenomenon. So how does a change in social life, such as the one we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic, affect it? Dr. Matthew points to social media as a potential driver of veganism throughout the pandemic, and also states that having been restricted to our homes for so long, it’s possible that our relationships to food and its provenance could change.
“I think it's likely that there's a resurgence of interest in things like gardening and self-provisioning with home, community or locally grown fresh produce and building local food security that's conducive to veganism,” he says.
It’s no surprise, with the enforced focus on home cooking that the lockdown brought with it (BBC Good Food’s recipes website received 7.8 million page views on the first Sunday of the lockdown period), and the possible upshot of this becoming a new or more regular habit for many, that food-to-go has been one of the worst hit areas for the food industry during the pandemic. Last month, Patrick Coveney, the CEO of Greencore – a convenience food manufacturer which supplies food-to-go to all of the UK’s major supermarkets – told the industry press that he believed that the convenience food market could take up to two years to recover from losses as a result of the pandemic, with so many employees out of their normal workplaces, and people visiting shops less often during the lockdown.
Convenience food has been a crucial part of veganism’s entrance into the mainstream, and while the sector itself flounders, some brands don’t see the need for vegan products waning. In July, for example, Pret a Manger launched its “Vegan Bakery”, which saw all non-vegan bakery products in Veggie Pret stores being removed from sale, and replaced with plant-based versions. In a statement, the UK managing director of Pret Clare Clough told VICE that “like many in the sector, our business has been impacted by the challenges of COVID-19. Given most people have been staying at home during the lockdown, it has had a severe impact on all sales. However, Veggie Pret exists because customers wanted more veggie and vegan options at Pret, and we don’t see the demand for vegan products going away in the long-term.”
Pret has had success with vegan pastries and biscuits in the past: Clough notes that “our previous vegan bakery launches, like the dark chocolate and almond butter cookie and the ‘Very Berry’ croissant, have been big hits with customers – vegan and non-vegan alike.” It seems that the Vegan Bakery initiative, too, has been a hit so far: the brand tells me that sales for the new items are “up by 20 percent compared with our non-vegan bakery range.”
It’s fair to say, then, that while some individuals have loosened their stances a little during a tough time, veganism and plant-based eating in general remain on the rise in the UK, with new launches still happening all the time (just this week, a vegan hog roast company is opening a new delivery kitchen in east London, after being “overwhelmed with demand” in the owners’ hometown of Cheltenham). Its sustained popularity over the lockdown period is more evidence that veganism is here to stay – and that my days of trawling shops for a carton of plant milk are firmly in the past.
*Name has been changed.