Rerooting Veganism

Veganism has become fashionable. On Instagram, a search for #vegan returns almost 80,000,000 hits. The top posts are dominated by glamour shots of food dishes, but content related to cosmetics and other fashion-related items are prevalent as well; this new visual expression of veganism is paradigmatic of the “cruelty-free” trend, which is tied in with the greater global trend of sustainability.

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The cruelty-free trend: save the rainforest while you snack…

When I became vegan 17 years ago, veganism was tightly associated with the animal rights movement—and, believe me, there was nothing fashionable about going vegan. Rather, people outside the movement viewed veganism with suspicion, if not with ridicule or downright hostility. Today, veganism has entered the mainstream, and even celebrity chefs—like Gordon Ramsay who used to be contemptuous of vegan food—have now realized that veganism can be good for business.

Indeed, veganism offers many companies an excellent opportunity to add a “sustainable” or “green” element to their brand. Most recently, here in Northern Europe, international peddler of chocolate and other sweets, Fazer launched a new brand called Yosa, which is made up of a line of different oat-based products. Of course, a company like Fazer, with no relationship to veganism, has undoubtedly taken note of how Oatly, a Swedish vegan company, has become very successful at selling their oat drinks and other products to a young audience using a humorous and funky branding strategy.

But veganism is more than colorful Instagram posts and clever marketing. At its core, veganism is radical. The word “radical” comes from Latin radicalis, meaning of or having roots. In the 17th century, the denotation of radicalis, in English, took on the metaphorical meaning of origins. It is this meaning of radical I associate with veganism. The origins of veganism as we know it today can be traced to 1944 when Donald Watson coined the word “vegan” out of the beginning and end of “vegetarian.” As the word itself indicates, veganism is about sparseness and intentionality—leaning out vegetarianism, so to speak—and we need to remind ourselves of these twin connotations as we continue to champion the ever-relevant original values of veganism while navigating the current era of fast-paced communication and hyper-commercialization. The definition of veganism was solidified in 1949 by Leslie J. Cross, another Vegan Society member: “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.” In 1988, the final definition of veganism was arrived at:

[Veganism is] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is
possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

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Balinese woman preparing red chilis for local farmer’s market

From the more practical earlier definition, by the late 1980s, veganism had assumed a loftier connotation. Neither definition, however, manages to emphasize the pleasure and joy of what it means to be vegan. Having grown up in a country with a long-established tradition of eating meat and other animal products, I was excited to discover so many new and different ways of eating when I went vegan in my late teens. What we have today, of course, in mainstream expressions of veganism is an overabundance of images displaying sumptuous veggie dishes and those who enjoy them.

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It’s difficult not to get swept away by (and to feel the need to add to) the abundance of delightful vegan meals presented on instagram

Although it does feel good to witness the new availability and exposure of veganism, we should not forget why veganism exists in the first place. There may well be more vegan food options available at the grocery store, and we shouldn’t disregard the rise in visibility and acceptance of veganism broadly speaking, but despite the mainstreaming of veganism, the consumption of meat hasn’t declined. Isn’t it a good thing, then, that vegan “meat” is now showing up in the most meat-friendly places, like in the fast-food industry?
Impossible Foods have partnered with Burger King to offer a vegetarian version of the Whopper, simply called the Impossible Whopper. The Impossible burger patty is made from plants, but what makes it so “meaty” is the addition of heme, an iron-rich molecule, which is what makes meat “juicy,” so to speak. But the heme of Impossible Foods is entirely grown from plants.

Replace the content, but keep the form. Is that the extent of our ambition? Perhaps veganism can lead us down a different, truly alternative, path that stays true to the ambition of the movement’s pioneers. The corporate food industry doesn’t benefit humanity or the environment; making it marginally more palatable by substituting animal with plant-based meat doesn’t change the fact that the kind of meal fast-food purveyors promotes is ultimately rooted in exploitation, causing harm to the environment and the people that consume it regularly (considering the potentially addictive qualities of fast food, it is no surprise that, despite the popular belief that mostly poor people eat junk, all social classes are equally affected).

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Vegans care about more than the exploitation of animals; in fact, I would wager, all forms of exploitation are linked in some way (materially or ideologically). As such, eating an Impossible Whopper, as opposed to a regular meat burger, can be considered more ethical, but it is not nearly ethical enough according to the original definition of veganism, which includes “the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.” The fast-food meal experience appeals to the lowest common denominator, which, from rich to poor, we are all susceptible to.
Turning to veganism involves a process of reflection about where the contents of our meals came from. Veganism is based on thinking about food: the ingredients and who was involved in putting it together and harvesting the ingredients, and so on. In other words, there can be no veganism without active thought (hence the “philosophy” part of the definition of veganism). And it is for this reason that veganism and fast food—and here I’m not thinking only about actual food but also the food we “consume” on social media—are diametrically opposite each other.

As technology has made it possible to offer plant-based food products that resemble the “real” thing so closely, it is essential that we re-examine and devote ourselves to the radical meaning of veganism, as laid out by Watson and The Vegan Society in the 1940s. And I want you to consider the following questions: Can’t we find a better use for plant life than making it into yet another high-caloric burger? Why are vegan food producers stuck on imitating meat? From a pragmatic point of view, the availability of meat alternatives can help ease the transition from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one. Additionally, there is pleasure in novelty: After years of not partaking in fast food, I would also be curious to try an Impossible Whopper.

We shouldn’t forget, however, that capitalism thrives on novelty. Without the occasional (in some industries, like fashion, daily) appearance of new products, the system of capitalism would start to slow down, to grow stale, producing less profit. The mainstreaming of veganism thus feeds more than hungry fast-food patrons; it feeds capitalism itself.

Veganism isn’t about perfection; chasing purity isn’t the point. The point, rather, is to think about the kind of veganism we want to see going forward. Food trends come and go, after all. To ensure that veganism remains sustainable, we should therefore support the companies that were around before mainstream veganism appeared. But, more to the point, if we lose touch with the roots of veganism, we can never hope to fulfil its radical promise of creating a better world for all creatures.

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