Veganuary is growing in strength with increasing numbers signing on to its pledge to eat only plant-based products for January.

Veganuary sounds like one of those concepts designed to make a splash and then be forgotten in a few years. Remember Movember, the movement for men to grow moustaches in November to bring attention to men’s health issues? It’s still around, but doesn’t make much impact these days, partly from lack of novelty, partly because so many men have facial hair these days it hardly seems special anymore to grow it for a cause.

But Veganuary only seems to be growing in strength. Ever since it was launched in the UK in 2014, increasing numbers have been signing on to its pledge to eat only plant-based products for January, avoiding all meat, dairy and eggs. By mid-December, the organisation claimed that more than 100,000 people around the world had signed on, double the number at this time last year. And with the campaign expanding to Germany and the US, and launching its first TV ad, this number is set to increase.

Perhaps the real sign of success, though, is the number of companies rushing to offer vegan products. One of the big food stories of this year in the UK was the success of Greggs, the UK’s largest bakery products chain, which launched a vegan version of its very popular sausage roll. This got huge positive coverage and soaring sales, with the mass market brand gaining kudos for realising that veganism was more than just an elite trend and then creating a tasty and affordable product to match.

Greggs is now developing vegan versions of all its products, with a big new launch slated for January. Other companies including Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys are now rapidly rolling out vegan products, which has caused a boom for ingredients such as green jackfruit – a large amount sourced from Kerala – used to mimic the texture of meat.

In the US, Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based versions of meat, had the most successful IPO on Wall Street for most of 2019. Its value has declined of late, but in a year with high-profile tech flops like WeWork, Lyft and Uber, Beyond Meat counts as a relative success – and an inspiration to other companies working on plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs. The number of legal challenges these products face trying to stop their use of the words ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ is also a kind of compliment to their success.

Palak Mehta, the founder of Vegan First, the Indian vegan advocacy group that organised the country’s first vegan conference this year, says Veganuary had started getting informal support in India three years ago, but last year there was an official tie-up with the UK organisation. They couldn’t get separate figures “but they did mention that India had the second-largest sign-ups globally for the Veganuary pledge last year.”

Mehta says this success prompted activists to start The Vegan Samooh to approach Veganuary for an official tie-up. Vegan activist Akshita Kukreja says that vegans across India are using this as a chance to organise pot-lucks, cooking demonstrations, film screenings – documentaries like ‘The Game Changers’ and ‘Cowspiracy’, which talk about the health and environmental costs of meat – and other events around the month.

Veganuary’s success obviously comes from building on the tradition of New Year resolutions. The start of a year has always been seen as a chance to make life changes or to compensate for the excesses of the past year. Going vegan fits neatly here because it’s seen as a healthy option. Even the fact that New Year resolutions are notorious for being broken helps because it makes the change seem less challenging. You know you’re going to miss out on something and want to feel virtuous for doing this, so why not drop meat and dairy?

And this gives vegan activists an opportunity. Vegan food has long been burdened with the reputation of being deficient or dreary or too expensive. But there’s a huge range that has now been made more to regular tastes or, particularly in India, was already vegan but people didn’t realise it (many instant noodles and processed snacks, for example). Veganuary is a chance for people to become aware of these foods and perhaps realise that being long-term vegan is not necessarily such a daunting prospect.

Mehta says Vegan First has been getting continuous requests for help with developing vegan menus, “but the market size wasn’t large enough for us to consider them. Now is a good time for us and that’s precisely the new business vertical we’re establishing.”  The training service they are setting up will be able to help everyone from restaurant management to a novice who wants to get started or a sous-chef who wants to learn the skills.

But all this success is leading to some pushback – and not just the expected opposition from meat, dairy and egg producers. Some vegetarian and vegan activists are getting uncomfortable with this newly trendy style of veganism and also the embrace from large companies. Maneka Gandhi, the animal rights activist, current Lok Sabha MP and ex-minister in the NDA government, recently issued some interesting critiques of where she sees the vegan movement heading.

In one article, she takes direct aim at the recent Vegan India conference, pointing out that all the speakers “represented a company that was making vegan products, mock meat, cosmetics, etc. There were no philosophers, no one to define what veganism could and should be. It was a consumer event.” (Gandhi had been invited to speak at the event and sent a video address).

Far from seeing what companies such as Greggs were doing as positive, Gandhi suggested that vegans who bought their products were, in effect, subsidising their continued sales of meat products: unthinking vegans were being used by meat producers as ethical cover. What was needed was not more vegan products being sold, but less consumption of any kind. Instead of building a vegan world through enticement, what was needed was breaking the existing, unsustainable, food system and directly challenging animal production and use.

This is the older, confrontational, approach to vegan activism and it has a certain logical consistency – if one believes that any kind of animal use is wrong and that the current system is leading to environmental disaster, then any compromise is a mistake. But this is also the approach that gained vegans their reputation as grim and grating crusaders, happier to persecute people rather than persuade.

This approach has been challenged by activists like Tobias Leenaert who, while being a committed vegan himself, argues in his book How To Create A Vegan World that it does very little to achieve vegan aims. For all the success the movement has had, the numbers of pure vegans are still far too few to make much difference to the food system – as compared to what could happen if a far large potential group could be persuaded to eat less meat, perhaps with the help of vegan products and principles.
Veganuary may be a gimmick and many of those who sign on may soon start eating meat and dairy again. But they will at least become aware that alternatives are available, that the arguments for them are strong and that the impact of veganism, however limited and less than pure, is still something that is here to stay.