By Syirah Ami, Third Year Aerospace Engineering
Two years ago, roaming the long aisles of Clifton Down Sainsbury’s, I had to scrutinise the ingredients of every single thing I bought for fear of being unwittingly poisoned by a meat product. Even the Free From section could not be trusted. Dramatic? Maybe so, but this is an Epigram article.
Now, I don’t have to worry so much. Vegan items are clearly labelled, and every major supermarket has their own-brand vegan line. Even if the Quorn vegetarian mince isn’t vegan, the Sainsbury’s one is.
It’s no question that Veganuary had a big role in this - I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan during Veganuary myself. It was the same January when pandemonium ensued in the vegan community upon the introduction of the Gregg’s vegan sausage roll. Gregg’s cafes were raided, people were queueing for hours and 5-star reviews were everywhere. Sounds like the perfect model for the vegan agenda?
It really depends on what you believe the vegan agenda is. The Vegan Society originally described veganism as “the principle of emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”. Veganism was never just about diet; it was a lifestyle and a belief with the aim of being as ethical as possible. It’s a conversation not just about what we eat, but also the wider exploitation of animals and its effects on society.
Vegan activism was a critique of capitalism and its relationship with animal exploitation. This is where I believe Veganuary falls short: the Veganuary pledge is to only change one’s diet.
The vegan community has always been debating whether, for example, eating the vegan burger at KFC is ethical enough (I say “ethical enough” because who is to say what’s fully ethical). But if you were doing the Veganuary pledge and ate the vegan burger, you wouldn’t be breaking the pledge. This is despite the fact that KFC is, at its core, a business where animals are exploited en masse. I’m not shaming those that eat at KFC; I’ve eaten at fast food chains serving meat before, for convenience and cost when I’m low on money.
But I believe this discussion needs to happen - if Veganuary isn’t the right time to have it then when is?
The non-profit organisation, Veganuary (the ones who started the Veganuary pledge in the first place), have tried to spread the wider message of veganism. They talk about animal exploitation in farms, problems with free range meat, animal cruelty in the fashion industry and more. However, the target audience shouldn’t be people who are already vegan but rather people who aren’t - when it comes to that, bigger companies have far better reach than a non-profit.
Some people may not even know Veganuary as an organisation; to them, it’s trendy food seen on billboards and bus adverts from places like Wagamama or Waitrose.
Mainstream modern veganism has been forcefully reduced to a dietary requirement rather than a radical shift in societal culture.
I know this is starting to sound like a We Live In A Society article. Unfortunately, there’s no way individual action alone will change the institutionalised dependency on meat. Yet, we have to start from somewhere. I have admitted that it was Veganuary that made me take up a vegan diet. Despite being vegetarian before, it was the lack of accessible vegan products that held me off.
Ironically, if Veganuary never kicked off the way it did, I may still be scrutinising every ingredient on a product in a Sainsbury’s aisle.
Finding the most effective way to raise awareness is difficult. I do think that companies making Veganuary special products only for the month of January are pandering. I do think that companies that obviously don’t care about vegan values are cashing in on Veganuary. But I also do think that there is benefit to having more accessible vegan products. This puts me in a dilemma.
I will admit that at present, consumerist society isn’t something people can escape from. As much as anyone would like to create giant societal shifts with the snap of their fingers, we can’t. Veganuary may not be raising enough awareness on veganism’s fundamental message, but I cannot deny that people are at least making dietary changes this month.
Maybe at present, that’s what we need. Before spreading the core values of veganism, maybe we need to get people interested in it first. The Gregg’s vegan sausage roll may not have been a radical statement against animal exploitation, but it did get the mainstream public to discuss veganism. It isn’t easy for people to turn vegan without first seeing that they can maintain a vegan diet at their favourite cafes and restaurants.
Consumerism, traditionally seen as the enemy, is unfortunately veganism’s ally every January. For now.
Featured Image: Epigram / Elisha Mans
Have you participated in Veganuary? Let us know.