Why Go Vegan?: Understanding Vegan Consumers in the Quest of Vegan Marketing and Making the Connections between Ethics, Environmental Sustainability, and Health

Author: Dr. Emre Ulusoy

 
I am an Associate Professor of Marketing at Youngstown State University in Ohio, USA. I am primarily interested in social, cultural, philosophical, and critical issues as they relate to the phenomena of consumption, marketing, and markets. Of these, my primary research projects cover studies of subcultures, music consumption, consumer resistance, market co-optation, fragmentation, identity, social movements, ethical consumption, sustainability, alternative food consumption, and veganism. My articles have been published in journals such as Journal of Business Research, Journal of Consumer Culture, Marketing Theory, Consumption, Markets & Culture, and Journal of Marketing Management.
 
Contemporary marketing is derived from a comprehensive understanding of consumers and the consumption phenomenon in general. Given the significance of understanding vegan consumers in the quest of vegan marketing strategy, this article suggests why consumers may go vegan and how environmental factors may shape their behaviors and vice versa, and highlights some of the findings of my research that I presented at the Marketing & Public Policy Conference and Macromarketing Conference and published in its proceedings.

Introduction

Humanity faces serious challenges with increasing environmental degradation, scarcity of resources, and booming global population (Brown 2011; Vidal 2012), being the most pressing issues of today. Yet, at the same time, there is a radical shift in value systems towards ethics, healthism, and environmentalism. Such a shift has initiated a move toward alternative diets and lifestyles in contemporary societies.
 
Many organizations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and World Watch Institute, suggest that a shift to a vegan diet is the only pragmatic solution to reducing anthropogenic climate change and that veganism is essential for health and sustainability. Veganism is spear-heading the rising movements toward sustainability, and is providing the means through which individuals work their identity projects and create and sustain their subcultures.
 
The shift in consumption patterns and a growing movement toward veganism call for research on vegan consumers’ motivations, lifestyles, and identity projects. This quest implies that marketers and policymakers must be well equipped to:
  1. cooperate with increasingly socially responsible and conscientious consumers,
  2. facilitate their lifestyle with a provisionary role, and
  3. be able to understand and address their specific needs.
The main purpose of this study is to investigate empirically, and unearth a deeper understanding of veganism as an alternative subcultural movement for sustainability that comprises complex realities.

Veganism in a nutshell

Veganism is a way of living, grounded in a moral philosophy that advocates and entails abstinence from consuming any animal product and byproduct, (i.e., meat, dairy products, eggs, honey, leather, etc.), to terminate the widespread animal exploitation and cruelty that exist in the marketplace and contemporary societies. Vegetarianism also advocates abstinence from meat consumption, but, unlike veganism, allows the consumption of animal products and byproducts such as dairy, egg, honey, silk, wool, leather, and the like. Jabs et al. (1998) suggest that the majority of ethically motivated vegetarians progress to veganism. Veganism concludes what vegetarianism started. Echoing this, Preece (2008, p.298) states that “…veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”
 
Veganism is one of the fastest-growing cultural movements, with the vegan population continuing to spike. In the United States alone, the vegan population grew by 600% between 2014 and 2017 (GlobalData, 2017). This growth resonates also with the propagation of vegan businesses and the booming vegan market expanding into vegan industries across the globe. According to Mintel Press Team’s report (2017), vegan food products in Australia grew by 92% between 2014 and 2016. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the sales of plant-based food products increased by 1500% between 2015 and 2016 (Peat, 2016). Finally, the global plant-based meat market is expected to reach $8.1 billion by 2026 (Allied Market Research, 2019).
 
Veganism, as a subcultural movement, has close ties with other social movements such as animal rights and environmentalism (Cherry, 2006). Social movements are increasingly gaining popularity in contemporary society, especially with the cultural turn from modern to postmodern. With this turn, the central and superior role of humans has come to be deconstructed, yielding to the notion that humankind and nature should live in harmony and co-exist peacefully. This co-existence comes with no judgmental assessment in terms of inferiority or superiority (Fırat and Dholakia, 2006).
 
Veganism provides an avenue for a growing number of consumers to reflect and express their resistive identities through their chosen alternative life projects as well as to shape their identity. But, despite its increasing popularity, it has thus far not drawn a deserved amount of attention among marketing and consumer researchers. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to empirically investigate veganism as a consumer movement and unearth the politics of vegan consumer identity.

Methodology 

In this exploratory study, I employed netnographic (Kozinets, 2002) research and participant observation for several years and collected the data from a diverse set of web-based discussion forums, social network sites, bulletins, and video-sharing sites (i.e., Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, veganforum.com, etc.) that are dedicated to the issues concerning veganism, and I analyzed the data by utilizing a constant comparative method.  
 
 
Findings, as a result of multiple coding process and iterative procedure, reveal three initial, emerging themes that are interrelated and that confirm the well-known pillars of veganism, and portray veganism as a subcultural movement, whereby consumers work their resistive identity projects.  
 
This study demonstrates that veganism is the core philosophy, from which the boundaries of social justice are extended, through making connections between all stakeholders of life, such as non-human animals, human animals, and the natural environment.  

Findings 

This study reveals veganism as a subcultural movement coalescing largely around alternative diets and lifestyles, as consumers increasingly organize their lives through vegan values, ethos, and experiences to bring about a change in society for the betterment of people, animals, and the planet, and to ultimately create a more liberated, peaceful, and sustainable world. 
 
Vegan consumers see the animal-industrial complex as a problematic set of practices, and demonstrate commitment to a healthy lifestyle, ethical values concerning animal rights, and ecological concerns, generated by the negative environmental impact of meat production and consumption. Vegan consumers seek to transform marketplace structures to extend the notions of social justice and morality to non-human animals as far as possible, cultivate compassion and peace for all sentient beings, and promote environmental justice and ethics required to live in harmony with nature and improve consumer well-being.  
Vegans are associated with a range of motivations, nevertheless, such motivations are not mutually exclusive. For example, unlike the propositions of prior studies, health benefits are not necessarily the dominant motivation but, rather, they complement and confirm the ethical and environmental stances of vegans. Multiple meanings are important in adopting and maintaining the vegan practices that shed light on the false dichotomy of ethical veganism versus environmental veganism. Veganism is subculturally abundant with meanings related to ethics, health, and environmental sustainability simultaneously.  
 
Veganism as the core of ethical consumerism:  
Vegan consumers place vegan philosophy at the core of their decisions, ranging from animal rights to environmental ethics. In an attempt to advocate animal rights and preserve biodiversity, vegans often promote an ethical orientation and lifestyle antithetical to the mainstream. Such consumers contest normalization of mainstream food culture and feel they behave more responsibly towards society and the environment than non-vegan consumers. 
Although many non-vegan consumers may think that they are ethical consumers for purchasing green products and/or fair trade products, reducing their consumption levels, engaging in recycling, buying local produce and items, etc., vegans still question the sincerity of their ethics, if they are not simultaneously practicing veganism as they are still contributing to animal cruelty, as well as the institutional exploitation of animals.  
Vegan consumers extend their morality towards non-human animals out of compassion and respect for all sentient lives. Vegans believe human animals and non-human animals have an equal right to life, and do not feel superior to other beings. Vegan consumers are overtly against “speciesism” (see Singer 2009) and consider speciesism equivalent to racism and sexism. Therefore, they feel it is hypocritical when consumers claim to be against racism and sexism but participate in speciesism by consuming animal products.  
 
Also, vegans are against the discrimination shown by non-vegan consumers against certain species of animals. For instance, while these consumers regard some animals such as dogs or cats as their children and coddle them as such, they objectify and eat other animals.  
Vegan consumers find appalling that non-vegans value tastes over life, while they insist that transition to veganism is difficult. 

 

 

Veganism aims to extend social justice to include non-human animals, respecting their lives, and fostering compassion between human animals and non-human animals – which is deemed by many philosophers to be the next stage in human evolution, and is regarded as the most mature, post-conventional ethical stage.
The vegan subculture embodies ethical aspirations of the highest level – nonviolence and the cultivation of compassion toward the innocent.  
The ideology behind veganism includes qualities such as responsibility, self-control, and empathy. All of these values will also lead to a lessening of our ecological footprint.  
 
Veganism as the core of consumer health and well-being:  
Mainstream food culture. which is largely based on animal production and consumption, is one of the key contributors to human-related diseases. Studies have shown that: 
Meat contains high amounts of toxic ingredients that are detrimental to health such as mercury in fish meat, arsenic in chicken meat causing various types of cancer, various types of bacteria causing bladder infections and meningitis, and high levels of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Meat consumption, especially red meat, is found to increase significantly the risk of mortality.  
Also, consuming a single egg a day is found to significantly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and mortality.  
Dairy industry products contain ingredients such as antibiotics, pus, and hormones, which may cause breast and prostate cancer. They also naturally contain high levels of saturated fat, animal protein, sugar, and cholesterol, which are considered to be detrimental to human health. In a renowned Chinese study, for instance, Campbell and Campbell (2006) discover the strong correlation between animal and dairy protein intake with osteoporosis and bone fracture and report that countries with the highest consumption of dairy products have the highest incidence of osteoporosis. 
 
Relative to mainstream food consumption patterns, studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that the vegan diet is more nutritious, and can lower the risk of major chronic diseases, including blood pressure, heart disease, cardiovascular risk, kidney disease, and neuropathy. It is also helpful in weight control; preventing and managing type 2 diabetes; protecting against hypertension, and various types of cancer, whilst bolstering physical and mental health and longevity.  
 
For adults, a vegan diet has been found to improve, “The health, quality of life, and work productivity of employees.” It has also been found to support normal growth and development in children. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegan diet is healthful and appropriate for individuals of all ages and individuals, “… during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” 
Although vegan consumers attach ethical considerations to their diets for altruistic reasons, they also care about their health and the health consequences of vegan diets. They acquire new competencies, such as new cooking skills, nutritional knowledge, ingredient checking, new places to shop, etc. and enjoy expanding their diet and experimentation. Drawing on their continuous research, vegan consumers seem to be very literate and knowledgeable about the nutritional and health benefits of their diet. As a result, they associate the most serious and dangerous diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, with the consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal byproducts.  
 
Although mainly ethical reasons drive consumers to go vegan, the decision to go vegan seemed to be reinforced by the health benefits. Vegan discourses manifest that going vegan contributes not only to consumers’ physical health but also to their psychological health. 
Veganism as the core of environmental sustainability:  
In addition to the negative impact of consuming animal products on consumers’ health and overall well-being, mainstream food production and consumption also contribute greatly to environmental degradation, with most agricultural practices requiring excessive consumption of natural resources such as energy, land, grains, and water.  
 
The meat-based food system is the predominant contributor to environmental degradation, shortage of natural resources, and decreasing quality of life. According to the United Nations report, the livestock industry accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and according to the World Watch Institute, this percentage goes as high as 50%. 
The meat-based food system/livestock industry is the predominant contributor to not only environmental degradation and the shortages of natural resources, but also the decline of quality of life. (Bourgeois 2012; Sarasota 2011; Walsh 2013).  
 
People have started to make the connection between sustainability and diet. Vegans are very vocal and articulate in spreading the message. Vegan consumers articulate that meat-eating has a serious detrimental impact on the environment. They consider meat-eating and meat production to be the main reason for not only environmental degradation, pollution, and global warming but also for global poverty. On the other hand, plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets, as they are well-suited to protect the environment, reduce pollution, and minimize climate changes, and thus enable environmental sustainability and avoid hunger and waste. Eliminating meat consumption, and buying local organic plant-based items, are efficient ways of reducing food carbon footprints and challenging conventional food production.  
 
By boycotting the livestock/meat industry and the conventional food system at large, vegans contribute to the relative social, economic, and environmental well-being and, thus, ultimately to social justice. Furthermore, vegan consumers think that veganizing the food system would eventually delegitimize the omnivorous diet and mainstream food culture. 

 

Discussion 

Veganism is the overarching system of meanings that work as a catalyst to make the connections among the parameters of sustainability and various stances revolving around ethics, environmental sustainability, and health/well-being. Such connections are interwoven into the overarching ideological discourses and identity politics that deals greatly with the social justice phenomenon. Vegan consumers hold many core characteristics and qualities of consumer resistance and make ideological and political statements on both personal and collective levels. Whilst veganism as a movement provides consumers with the philosophy that manifests a foundation to make the connections among several alternative ethical and ideological stances, it also provides consumers with the means through which they collectively refuse and resist the structural forces of exploitation, stigmatization, and cruelty that exist in the marketplace.  

While exploring the multifaceted macro statements initiated and undertaken by vegan consumers, the other influential contribution of this study deals with the identity politics worked by vegan consumers. Contrary to the dominant view in consumer research and marketing field concerning the politics of consumer identity work, vegan consumers’ identity work does not necessarily emphasize goals oriented toward recognition or redistribution in pursuit of transforming marketplace structures for their individual or collective interests. Yet, we found in this study that vegan consumers engage in identity politics in pursuit of transforming marketplace structures to ultimately extend the notion of social justice, cultivate compassion and peace for all sentient beings, and live in healthy conditions and in harmony with nature. 

References  

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Brown, L. R. (2011), World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Campbell, T. C., & Campbell, T. M. (2006). The China study: The most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted and the startling implications for diet, weight loss and long-term health.

Cherry, Elizabeth (2006), “Veganism as a Cultural Movement: A Relational Approach,” Social Movement Studies, 5 (2), 155-170. 

Fırat, A. Fuat, and Nikhilesh Dholakia (2006), “Theoretical and Philosophical Implications of Postmodern Debates: Some Challenges to Modern Marketing,” Marketing Theory, 6 (2), 123-162. 

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Ulusoy, Emre (2015), “I think, therefore I am vegan: Veganism, ethics, and social justice,” Annual Macromarketing Conference (Vol. 419).

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