Mainstreaming Veganism: Full Interview with Imagine5

Mainstreaming Veganism: Full Interview with Imagine5

I was interviewed by Imagine5, a nonprofit working to popularize scientific ideas about sustainability through storytelling. The full interview can be read here, where I am joined by fellow sociologist Matthew Cole. The majority of my interview was cut for space, but is shared here in its entirity.

How would you describe attitudes to vegans in wider society over the past decade or so?

We’ve seen considerable strides in social acceptance. In the UK, for instance, veganism is now protected as a philosophy, meaning that vegans can no longer be discriminated against in schools, the workplace, prison, and other institutions. With success, however, will come the inevitable pushback. As veganism gains traction, it has been battered by other legal efforts to undermine it. For instance, in the United States, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was reworked into the Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act in 2006 to reframe vegans from protestors to terrorists. By way of another example, in the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union, there are considerable legal barriers regarding the marketing language that vegan alternatives utilize. For instance, in the EU, “oat milk” cannot be labeled as “milk.” In the US, it has even been uncovered that the egg industry colluded with the USDA to block the success of Just Egg (a popular plant-based alternative to mayonnaise and other chickens’ egg products) due to labeling concerns.

How do you explain the negativity that vegans often seem to face?

Social psychological research is uncovering considerable vegan stigmatization. This phenomenon can be attributed to “do-gooder derogation,” a negative reaction to positive deviance (ie. people who behave more positively than average). People with authoritarian and conservative type personalities are also shown to be less receptive to vegans and animal rights messages.

Sociologically speaking, however, there is intense countermovement resistance against veganism because it challenges state, industry, and gender power structures that rely on and benefit from animal oppression. The capitalist co-optation of veganism in the past few years doesn’t help. Although plant-based eating has been practiced by the global majority for most of human history and vegan diets have been shown to be, on average, lower in cost, the commodification of veganism has moved it away from a diet that is healthy, affordable, and accessible whole foods to one that is expensive, hard to find, and heavy with animal-replacement products that are often high in sugar, salt, and fat.

What’s it like being a vegan in this type of culture? Do you have personal examples you could share?

I’ve been vegan since 2001, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in that time. After moving to the United Kingdom, I’ve been amazed at how advanced veganism is. Perhaps the change I’m most grateful for is the legal protection I now enjoy; I recently had a meeting with my university’s human resources team on accommodating me as a vegan in the workplace and was astonished that my concerns were taken seriously.

Everyday living as a vegan is also a lot easier. Just about every restaurant has multiple vegan options, and all the major fast food chains are offering signature vegan products. Drug stores and grocery stores all clearly label vegan products.

Although America has a long way to go in these regards, it is still the case that major progress has been made. I recently visited the grocery store where I grew up in a small railroad town in southern Appalachia. I was astonished at the variety of vegan alternatives for sale—more than I can find in my university town in Canterbury, England, an hour outside of London. The residents of my hometown are disproportionately older and lower class, folks who are more vulnerable to diet-related disease. My guess is that these folks are turning to vegan options for their health.

Plant-based diets are becoming much more mainstream. How have you seen attitudes change over the years? Are people nicer to vegans these days? More open-minded? Are vegans themselves bolder about it? More willing to talk about it? Less concerned of what people will think? Do you have a sense of when this changed or what the ‘milestones’ have been?

As I’ve said, I think there are some gains and strains when it comes to veganism in the 21st century.

The average person is now familiar with veganism as a concept, and many people have tried veganism or now incorporate plant-based meals into their omnivorous diet. A recent UK survey found that almost half of Brits identify as flexitarian, suggesting that cutting back on animal products is now seen as a social good.

I do think this is emboldening vegans on a political level. In just the past year, Animal Rising, a UK animal rights group, has worked with several UK and European universities to transition the student catering facilities to 100% plant-based. Students are using their unions to create new plant-based policies, with major wins in many universities, my own included. Because of the ever worsening climate crisis, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore the science that connects our consumer behaviors to serious environmental consequences. Animal Rising’s Plant-based University campaign has been very bold in demanding universities disinvest from animal agriculture—I was personally skeptical that they would make any headway, but it seems the environmental angle and the utilization of student democratic channels has been a wise strategy.

How do you see the culture around veganism changing in the years to come? What might you expect to see/hear in 2025 or 2030, for instance?

In the next couple of years, I expect to see public familiarity with veganism grow with more and more people incorporating vegan foods, reducing their consumption of animal products. The number of vegans has not really grown considerably in the past few years, but perhaps that will start to change, particularly as the climate emergency worsens. I also expect to see greater strides made in the developing world. I’m seeing quite a lot of amazing vegan activism happening in India, and even a rise in plant-based eating in China (the government of China, incidentally, has pledged to reduce its consumption by 50% in the next few years). Because rapidly expanding animal consumption is tightly linked with a legacy of colonization and Westernization, I think it is important to see these types of resistance outside of the US and UK.

Overall, however, disinvestment in animal agriculture is unlikely, as meat and dairy have strongholds on governing bodies at the national, international, and non-profit level. The recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP) meeting was absolutely deluged with meat and dairy lobbyists this year, for instance, keen to reframe animal agriculture as consistent with sustainability; even preventing COP organizers from serving a fully plant-based menu for attendees. Even the UN, known for its reliance on scientific expertise, leadership in challenging animal agriculture, and its ability to coordinate global actors for meaningful social change, cannot free itself from industry influence. For that reason, I do see activists, students, and consumers as the main drivers of the vegan revolution.

Vegan culture is likely to move more and more into environmental claimsmaking, as that has proved most successful in achieving institutional changes that support a transition to plant-based foodways. I would like to see, however, more social justice claimsmaking made for nonhuman animals themselves. Sadly, in all the discourse over healthy food, capitalism, and climate change, the animals themselves remain hidden from the conversation. This is a real travesty, as they have the most to gain from a vegan world.

Read the final interview here.



Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.