How the Vegan Society moved from fad, to fashion, to mainstream

During the Second World War, six vegetarians founded a charity – and coined a word – that would grow into a global phenomenon. Now the Vegan Society is putting animal wellbeing firmly back on the menu. Maggie Baska reports

(Photograph: Picture Capital/Alamy Live News)
(Photograph: Picture Capital/Alamy Live News)

Walking into the Vegan Society’s headquarters is like walking into any ordinary office building. The walls are a calm blue colour, people discuss their weekend plans and a delivery of milk has just arrived. But then small things start to stand out. There are cartons of soya milk in the staff fridge – no cows’ milk. The break room has a “vegan bookshelf” filled with cookbooks and guides that can be checked out by anyone in the office. One wall is covered in photos of dogs, cats and a horse, which one employee describes as staff members’ “companion animals”.

Dr Sam Calvert, the charity’s researcher-in-residence and head of communications, works alongside two employees in a small office filled with press releases and campaign pamphlets. A cane that belonged to Donald Watson (right), founder of the society, rests against one of the walls behind Calvert’s desk. She says they recently tried to install another desk, but were stopped when a health and safety officer pointed out they were at the legal limit of people per room.

“We’re now quite close to full in the office,” Calvert explains. “I’m creating another role in my team. We thought we could fit that person in, just take that cabinet out and put a desk in. But we’ve got to the point where it’s against the law to squeeze a desk into the corner.”

The building is full now, but the Vegan Society has much humbler origins. In the midst of the Second World War, Watson, a British woodworker, met five other non-dairy vegetarians to discuss the optimal diet for humans and the impact of the meat and dairy industry on animal welfare. In a 2004 interview – a year before his death at the age of 95 – Watson recalled that the Vegan Society’s foundation seemed a fitting antidote to the “sickening experience” of the war.

“Evolution can be retrogressive as well as progressive,” he wrote in the first edition of the charity’s magazine, Vegan News. “Indeed, there seems always to be a strong gravitation the wrong way unless existing standards are guarded and new visions honoured.

“For this reason we have formed our Group, the first of its kind, we believe, in this or any other country.”

Veganism as a concept has existed for thousands of years, with evidence of people choosing to abstain from animal products traced back to about 500 BCE. In addition to his theorem about triangles, the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras promoted equality among all animal species, including humans, by adopting what could be described in modern terms as a vegetarian diet. And followers of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism advocated for diets and lifestyles in which humans lived in harmony with animals.

But there was no existing definition for diets and lifestyles that promoted abstaining from all animal products, including meat, cheese and leather, until 1944, as Watson worked to find a word that would describe his newly founded group. Rejected words included “dairyban”, “vitan” and “benefore”, until they settled on “vegan”, a word Watson later described as consisting of the first three and last two letters of “vegetarian”.

Seventy-five years later, the charity continues with Watson’s vision of a world in which humans do not exploit animals by promoting a vegan lifestyle, educating people about the practicalities of plant-based living, advocating for animals and lobbying for legal and policy changes that support vegan ways of life.

But the context in which they operate has changed dramatically. When Watson wrote and produced the first Vegan Society newsletter in 1944, it had 25 subscribers. Today there are approximately 600,000 vegans in the UK alone (more than 1 per cent of the population), up from 276,000 in 2016. Vegan dishes are available in most restaurants and recipe books are increasingly in demand. In January this year, an employment tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief, protected by law against discrimination.

And as veganism has exploded in the UK, so has the Vegan Society. In 2018, the charity’s income reached £2m, almost double that of the previous year, and the size of the organisation has experienced a similarly rapid expansion. In 2009, the Vegan Society had only 10 staff members. Ten years later, the Vegan Society has more than 40 employees, and there are plans to hire more in the coming months.

From ‘fad’ to serious proposition

In the words of the charity’s chief executive, George Gill, veganism has moved from “fad”, through “gone past being fashionable” to being taken seriously in his tenure alone. When he started working for the charity a decade ago as the head of business development, Gill remembers attending a trade show and visiting a booth selling health supplements. He approached the stand to introduce himself, but was met with suspicion when the booth staff realised Gill worked for the Vegan Society.

“As soon as they looked at my badge and saw where I worked, they asked if I could leave their stand because they didn’t want anything to do with veganism,” Gill says. “I told them that didn’t make sense from a commercial perspective and to mark my words that in a couple of years they would be demanding the trademark licence from us.”

There are only 600,000 vegans in the UK, so it can't just be vegans eating vegan products. It is meat eaters wanting to try new products

Dr Sam Calvert, head of communications, Vegan Society

His assertion proved entirely correct – eventually, the same company inquired about how to get the Vegan Society’s signature sunflower trademark on its products. The turnaround, Gill says, was not only a personal win, but also fundamental proof of the increased consumer demand for vegan products.

Today, the Vegan Society’s signature sunflower trademark, licensing of which forms a core part of the charity’s income, is used on more than 40,000 commercial labels worldwide as a standard for products free from animal ingredients and animal testing.

Anyone looking for further proof of demand need look no further than the charity’s latest accounts. Trademark income grew to £966,000 in 2018, up from £755,000 the previous year, smashing the projected target of £825,000. Membership subscriptions increased by 35 per cent, with income rising from £156,000 to £211,000 over the same period. And legacy donations – though not targeted, according to the accounts – produced an income of £170,000, though the charity had planned for just £47,000.

The charity’s trademark team has grown in response to the increasing commercial demand for more products to gain the coveted symbol, which helps people readily identify vegan foods, cosmetics and clothing items, for their packaging.

“The trademark team has probably seen the most growth over the years because we’ve had growth on our commercial side,” explains Louise Davies, head of campaigns, policy and research.

“Our clients see the trademark as something they want to support because they see the value of the logo from a brand-awareness perspective, and they see the value of supporting our work.”

Partnering is second nature to the organisation: as an educational charity, much of the Vegan Society’s work comes from helping businesses and the public to see the value of veganism. And although Calvert says Watson and the other Vegan Society founders could never have predicted the charity’s future success and explosive growth, much of its current work, including the trademark, harkens back to the founding mission.

“Some of the Vegan Society’s earliest work concerned trying to provide guides as to which foods happened to be suitable for vegans,” she says. “In a way, we still do that with our trademark. It’s radically different from what the founders envisioned for the future, but it’s still the same activity at heart.”

The charity has implemented a wide range of campaigns in its seven decades of operation, spanning everything from the treatment of animals in the meat and dairy industries to the animal by-products that lurk in beauty products and how to provide vegan options in public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Its latest campaign, launched to celebrate its anniversary in November, is called Vegan and Thriving. It seeks to educate people with nutritional advice and dispel some of the pervasive myths around plant-based diets, in the context of research from the charity that found more than half (52 per cent) of people had health concerns about becoming vegan.

But this year, the charity is focused on returning to its roots. As the positive effects of a vegan diet on health and the environment have become more well known, the charity says the core focus on animals, ethics and values have been lost over time.

Relinking with animals

In its next campaign, Davies explains, the charity wants to relink the choice to go vegan with animals. She says she believes that many people stay vegan when they are able to connect their lifestyle choices to their personal values and beliefs.

“We want to get back to those people who think ‘I’m a bit plant-based’ and ‘I feel more positive about veganism’, or think of themselves as animal lovers, but then ask ‘why is it ok to eat some animals?’” Davies says.

“We really want to connect their views on animals to the core ethical messages of the Vegan Society, which we hope will help more people to stay vegan.”

Gill agrees, adding that “somewhere along the line within that fashionable veganism trend”, the core message of veganism being connected to animal wellbeing was lost.

But although environmental veganism has experienced a boom in recent years, with research by climate change activists suggesting that cutting out meat and dairy is one of the best things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, animal welfare remains front and centre for many. According to a 2019 survey of more than 12,800 vegans by the animal welfare campaigning group Vomad, two-thirds (68 per cent) “went vegan for the animals”. One in five (17 per cent) switched to a plant-based diet for health reasons, and 10 per cent did it for the environment.

The charity’s animal focused campaign will not be a “shock-to-the-system” type of approach, Gill explains, arguing that it is more important to introduce veganism in stages and educate people about all the reasons to go vegan.

“You’ve got to take advantage of what’s trending and current to take people on an educational journey,” he says. “As you’re on the platform and you’re going through the train carriages, you start bringing the grass roots back in and explain why the Vegan Society was started in the first place.”

He admits that talking about the realities of the meat and dairy industry is not something that consumers have traditionally liked, but he thinks the current cultural landscape is ripe for that conversation. “In today’s world, people are willing to listen when you bring those topics up,” Gill says. “I think we do need to connect the real organisational message and essence of our work to our campaigns. You can’t switch the light on straight away, but our goal is to help educate and support people.”

Flourishing for the future

After such rapid growth in the past 10 years, where can the Vegan Society go from here? Only up, the charity’s executives predict. The organisation is pursuing four strategic outcomes for 2025 “and beyond”, including “a more favourable legal and policy framework for veganism and vegan products and services”, and “more people choose to be vegan or at least use vegan alternatives”.

The latter, certainly, seems to be in action already. Interest in “veganism” has increased seven-fold in the past five years, according to Google Trends, with almost four times the number of searches as “vegetarian” and “gluten-free”. More people in the UK searched for information on veganism in 2019 than in any other region in the world. And, based on the commercial success of vegan food products in stores and restaurants, Sainsbury’s has predicted that vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the British population by 2025, while almost half of all UK consumers will be “flexitarians” or those on a semi-vegetarian diet.

There has also been massive commercial success for vegan items in the past year, with the bakery chain Greggs rewarding staff with a shared £7m bonus after the launch of the bakery chain’s vegan sausage roll helped to deliver a major boost to sales. After the commercial success of the vegan sausage roll, Greggs chief executive Roger Whiteside became vegan.

Calvert says the success of Greggs’ sausage roll was the result of a broader cultural shift in which it is acceptable to try vegan alternatives. “There’s only 600,000 of us [vegans] in the UK, so it can’t just be vegans eating those products,” she says. “It is meat eaters also wanting to try new products. For the day they picked the vegan sausage roll, they didn’t choose the meat, which is a win for vegans.”

Other charities have benefited from the shift towards greater acceptance of plant-based diets. Veganuary, a UK charity that challenges people to go vegan for the entire month of January, which is a partner of the Vegan Society, said the 2020 registration figures for the campaign far exceeded its initial target of 350,000. More than 400,000 people signed up in 2020, compared with 250,000 in 2019, with participants including the Queen guitarist Brian May (left) and the Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden.

To keep pace with the increased numbers of people going vegan, Gill predicts the Vegan Society’s staff will rise in number to meet demand. He says it plans to have more than 50 staff by the end of 2020 and could “easily hit triple digits” in the next five years. This vision is accompanied by ambitious financial goals.

“I’m thinking that, in order for us to do stronger campaigns and get our message across, we need to almost double our income,” Gill says. “If we’re growing from a licensing perspective, we can expand the operation of the charity itself, allowing us to further develop our existing departments and even create new ones to reach our target audience.”

He is confident that the shift towards veganism will continue in the coming years, opening “another chapter and another door” for the charity, including the possibility of growing an international presence to get the “message of the Vegan Society across the waters”.

For Calvert, the future is murkier, as she “couldn’t have dreamed of this level of acceptance for veganism” two decades ago. When she went vegan more than 25 years ago, it was difficult to find milk alternatives at cafés and she would have to bring her own when she went out. Now, most cafés on the high street carry at least one type of non-dairy milk.

“If you had asked me then, I would have thought the moment that we’re in now was impossible, but I’m starting to think that all sorts of things are possible,” she says.

“There’s always a nagging concern it’s going to hit a peak, but so far, with growing scientific studies, cultural awareness and commercial availability for vegan products, veganism is shooting up.

“I can’t see that changing any time soon.”

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