2018 Was the Year Veganism Lost Its Status as a Moral Signifier
This year, vegans split into the mainstreamers who buy their ready meals from Tesco, and the pious activists who refuse to change their methods.
The author, enjoying some vegan food.
No one asks why you're vegan anymore. It was previously a question people needed answering before moving forward in their conversation with you: What necessitates this aggressive lifestyle choice? Do you believe animals shouldn't be used for food? Or that your carbon footprint should be reduced? Or are you just a hipster, substituting a personality for a plant-based diet?
In 2018, fewer people need an explanation, because the explanation invariably isn't all that interesting. No one cares – bar my nan, who is forever destined to grapple with why I don't take milk in my tea.
Veganism as a word, a concept, shed much of its loadedness exceptionally quickly. Its public image has undergone a vast transformation over the past few years. In 2014, veganism was considered the height of pretension. In 2016, I wrote for VICE that veganism was being wrongly conflated with clean eating and wellness; during that cultural moment, it was seen as an extension of the Hemsley sisters: thin, privileged, white and irritating – when, in fact, many vegans are the exact opposite. By 2017, veganism was more seriously on the rise, with businesses on the vegan junk food trend, like Temple of Seitan, opening in Hackney; vegan pop-up Club Mexicana opening its first permanent site; popular US chain By Chloe launching in the UK; and Veggie Pret even firming up a permanent branch in Shoreditch.
This year, veganism fully mainstreamed. Look to bastions of beige Lewis Hamilton and will.i.am. who went vegan, or the 3.5 million vegans in the UK alone. Supermarkets across the country have embraced it – to profit, of course, from the vegan pound. New lines and products were launched for the largest Veganuary ever, some of which I critiqued at the time for being too expensive or just not tasting great. Still, you can now walk into almost any decent supermarket and buy vegan cheese.
What this evolution means is that, for the first time ever – for those in their thirties and under, at least – veganism holds little moral weight. It doesn't signify all that much, not restraint or control or sacrifice. It doesn’t mark you out as any "sort" of person or part of any subculture – or even holding any particular beliefs, although you might.
Look for it and you'll notice the evidence of this every day, particularly if you're a long time vegan or vegetarian. "Masculine" men are calling themselves flexitarian or trying veganism, while previously it would have been seen as a wimpy or feminine pursuit. Even more curiously, former carnivores are going totally "cold turkey" on animal products. A few years ago, the standard route was to slowly transition from meat eater to pescatarian or vegetarian, and then onto veganism, if you made it that far without too much distress.
Elsewhere, vegan specific-dating apps never took off – they feel embarrassing now, for embodying a type of veganism that had already become outdated before they were launched. A veganism that meant all-encompassing martyrdom and a belief system that stood at the forefront of your life, because it had to: you couldn't go out for dinner without waiters getting confused and co-workers and acquaintances irritated by the fact you’d willingly made your life more difficult. But, in 2018, why meet someone from a vegan app – however much you enjoy their "eat pussy, not animals" profile picture – when everyone in your age bracket is tolerant of veganism, and a vast majority of the vegan population (42 percent of vegans were found to be aged between 15 and 34) are in your age range? You can find them on Tinder or Instagram or... in real life.
What's odd is that despite veganism being normalised, 2018 was the year that vegan activism ramped up its moralism. PETA's prolific high jinks continued as usual. They fought for that monkey that accidentally took a selfie to own the copyright. They wanted to erect a roadside memorial for lobsters killed in a road accident. They claimed that milk is a "symbol of white supremacy" and dressed up in cow-cum-Handmaid’s Tale costumes to highlight the "violence and rape" inflicted during dairy farming. The other day, they made a chart of anti-speciesist language, suggesting we alter phraseology like "bring home the bacon" to "bring home the bagels", or "take the bull by its horns" to "take the flower by its thorns". In an accompanying blog post, they went so far as to say calling each other a "pig" or "cow" is as insulting to animals as it is to the human on the receiving end. The overall message is – despite it being knowing and tongue-in-cheek, since who would really would stand by this? – that animals don't just deserve good treatment, but identical treatment and discourse to human beings.
Meanwhile, vegan activist Wesley Omar became British C-list famous after he stole a pig from a farm and took it to a sanctuary, and this month, the year’s final flourish of vegan activism came from vegan Jordi Casamitjana taking landmark legal action to claim he was the victim of discrimination – a tribunal that will ultimately decide whether veganism is a philosophical belief akin to a religion. Casamitjana represents the type of vegan that irritates people the most: the white person who wears "vegan" beanies and has no room for compromise in their views. If he wins – which, in fairness, he has a decent chance of doing, if you look at the checklist of requirements for veganism to become a philosophical belief – it will legitimate veganism permanently. Granted, it will also initially draw a huge amount of derision, but veganism being classed as a belief system will undoubtedly elevate even from where it is now.
For all the disdain it frequently has directed at it – from myself included – PETA has a track record of success with this type of bolshy, ambitious activism. "Whether you agree with it or not, PETA, more than any other organisation I know, are never scared of getting headlines, whether they’re good or bad," a press officer for the organisation told me in 2016. "To be honest, PETA isn’t here to be nice. We want to start a debate. We are a protest group, even though we are a charity."
The spokesperson pointed to fur as an example where high-profile controversial PETA ads – remember the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" ones featuring naked celebrities? – resulted indirectly in a passionate change of public opinion. They get people annoyed and talking: it's basic viral marketing.
It's clear that veganism is fracturing as it grows. In broad strokes, this looks like a minority of pious vegans and an increasing number of vegans who just get on with it, happy with their vegan cheese and fake chicken nuggets. Veganism doesn’t feel like it has to stand for something these days – in the UK, at least, the "fight" has largely been won. You have all your replacement products, your vegan restaurants and cafés; people don’t necessarily view animal products as an essential part of a diet; your mates and girlfriend are doing the "vegan thing".
Why are you a vegan? It’s just a thing to do, because you can.