Is veganism being co-opted by capitalism?

I became vegan in 2013 for three reasons – the animals, the planet, and my health. Over the past 6 years being vegan has become easier and easier and it has been comforting to watch the rise in people opting for a plant-based diet because they are concerned about the welfare of animals or have realised the massive contribution the meat and dairy industry is making to climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. It has also been nice to not be seen as ‘odd’ and ‘difficult’ when I am out with friends and work colleagues, because nearly every restaurant has a vegan option now and it is rare to find someone who doesn’t know what vegan means. However, something about the proliferation of mainstream vegan foods leaves me deeply troubled and it is something I have been thinking through over the past few months. It is easy to get excited when another huge business launches a vegan range, or a vegan alternative to a popular meat dish becomes available in the supermarket, but once that initial excitement has died down I am always left with the fact that for many veganism is an attempt to break free from the consumer culture which harms our planet so greatly, and that turning veganism into big business goes against these aspirations.

Most who decide to become vegan are not just making the decision to change their diet, they are also choosing to embrace a different way of life, one that respects animals and the planet and does not see humans as any more important than any other species. So being vegan is an ethical stance which opposes the human use of all animals for food, clothing or entertainment, and this involves not just eating differently but also making different choices around clothing, make up, beauty and cleaning products, which charities money is given to, which medications are taken and so on. Of course it is impossible to live under our capitalist system which has the exploitation of the natural world at its heart and not contribute to the ill-treatment of animals in any way; our food is transported by lorries which have animal fat in their tyres, the parent companies of ethical make up brands usually fund and take part in animal experiments, the vaccinations and medications we give our pet animals are tested on other animals, the supermarkets we buy our vegan products from are making money from animal abuse, and so on. However, as far as possible, living a vegan life involves making choices which do not involve the human use and abuse of animals.

Whilst I am hugely glad to see the number of people following plant-based diets increasing, and veganism becoming more mainstream, I am also concerned that big business is co-opting the vegan movement to further increase profit. Seeing McDonald’s launch a ‘vegan burger’ made me feel quite ill – the way the farms used by McDonalds treat animals, the amount of waste the corporation produces and the size of their carbon footprint, makes McDonalds the complete antithesis of everything veganism stands for. Buying a ‘vegan burger’ from McDonalds still means helping McDonalds to make a profit and thus enables them to continue exploiting the planet we depend upon for survival, directly harming animals in the process. I am similarly troubled by the amount of vegan convenience foods available now. Of course in essence the increasing availability of vegan foods is good because it encourages more people living busy lives to give up meat and dairy, something that is essential if we are to halt ecological breakdown and survive as a species, but they still enable the global capitalist system to become even more entrenched. Processed foods which require huge amounts of carbon to be produced are not really vegan, and foods that contain palm oil and thus involve the mass destruction of rainforests are not really vegan either. Much as it excites me that Oreos and Party Rings are ‘accidentally vegan’, eating these foods does not fit with my vegan vision of the how the planet should be. And whereas it was once hard to get hold of vegan foods so that much of the diet of vegan individuals involved minimally processed, home-prepared foods, veganism is now big business and vegan alternatives to many popular meals are now widely available and it is possible to be vegan and have an incredibly high carbon footprint with regards the food you eat.

And whilst veganism involves understanding our place within the planet’s ecosystems, one of the fundamental elements of patriarchal capitalism is the separation of humans from nature, and the desire to have control over the natural world. It is this which enables humans to treat animals with sadistic cruelty, often as a way to strengthen masculinity, and to drain the planet of resources so that whole ecosystems are being destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Veganism is in direct contrast with this, and so it saddens me greatly that veganism is now being used as a way for massive corporations to increase their profits further. Although being vegan is far easier now, I often find myself nostalgic for the days when veganism was a way of eschewing capitalism also. And it makes me want to take veganism further in my own life. For me being vegan also means doing as little as possible which harms the natural world, because animal lives are lost directly and indirectly by the destruction of the environment in which they live. This means anything which has a huge impact on climate change and ecological breakdown – flying, the fast-fashion industry, single-use plastic, deforestation for palm oil plantations – are not really vegan either. For me part of being vegan is choosing not to fly, avoiding products with palm oil in even though they may be labelled vegan, buying second hand as far as possible, not buying drinks in plastic bottles, not buying overly processed foods or foods flown in from thousands of miles away. Our capitalist system is driving catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown, and therefore anything which strengthens the capitalist agenda and promotes profit over the well-being of people and planet are in direct opposition to veganism. It is this that makes me uncomfortable with the capitalist co-opting of veganism.

Ultimately, as I wrote about in my previous post, it is very difficult to live the kind of lifestyle that many of us would ideally live; we are all bound by this toxic system and I would rather individual people were seeing the wide array of vegan foods and moving away from the consumption of meat and dairy and other animal products because they are awake to the suffering inflicted on non-human animals. However, for me it is also important to be aware of what vegan really means, beyond dietary choices, and consider whether the foods I choose to consume are contributing to the destruction of wildlife and habitats in a less direct but equally as harmful way. It is my opinion that true veganism involves minimal exploitation of the natural world of which we are a part, and involves treading as gently as possible on the earth – clearly this is in direct opposition to capitalism and I do really struggle with the way big companies have jumped on the bandwagon of vegan ‘meat alternatives’ as I feel this undermines and subverts the vegan message.