- With a record number of people taking part in Veganuary 2022, the 31-day plant-based pledge is once again making headlines this January as food manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants cater to the movement.
- Our media analysis found that the largest topic in the Veganuary discussion is “Climate change”, suggesting that there’s a cultural shift in people’s motivations to go vegan, as environmental concerns take precedence over personal health.
- We also found that fast-food giants Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC were the most influential companies in the media debate, followed by supermarkets like Aldi, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer.
In 2022, a record number of people signed up to take part in the Veganuary challenge, launched in the UK in 2014 by the Veganuary charity to encourage meat-eaters to adopt a plant-based lifestyle throughout the month of January. Happening predominantly in the UK, the 2022 challenge has “hit a new landmark” with close to 610,000 people taking part, with the actual number of Britons believed to be far higher.
Moreover, forty-two companies in the UK have signed up to the workplace challenge this year, including Marks & Spencer, the professional services firms PwC and EY, and the insurer Hastings Direct. Organisers suggested that the surge could have been due to larger numbers of people experimenting with animal-free diets during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many analysts noted that even a few years ago consumers struggled to find alternatives such as soy milk in the supermarkets, but now retailers have started to expand their vegan offerings to keep up with demand, meaning you can get your hands on almost anything, from vegan meat and cheese to chocolate and ice cream. Veganuary sees a number of mainstream brands release new and exciting products.
At the same time, going vegan is not the food-eliminating challenge it once was. There has been a gold rush in the food industry with investors pouring billions into alt-meat and dairy brands, a trend that has resulted in thousands of new products including high-profile innovations. With more than 50,000 products certified by the Vegan Society, there has been no let-up before the 2022 Veganuary campaign, with a welter of treats arriving on supermarket shelves and menus.
Climate change as a top incentive
We analysed 246 articles published between December 2021 – January 2022 in top-tier English-language outlets and found that Climate change was the largest topic in the discussion around Veganuary:
Many media outlets noted that avoiding meat and dairy is considered to be the biggest single way someone can reduce their impact on the planet.
Journalists cited scientific studies that showed humans farm about 4.1bn hectares (10.1bn acres) of land globally, and that if we all adopted a vegan diet, just 1bn hectares would be used. This would mean more space to protect wild habitats for nature and plant trees – the so-called land “sparing” approach to wildlife protection.
Another oft-cited study was a 2021 poll that showed millions of flexitarian Brits planned to eat more vegetarian food this year in a bid to be more environmentally friendly. The biggest problem for them is the negative impact of the meat industry on the planet, and brands selling alternatives often make the case for their products by underlining environmental concerns alongside ethical and health considerations. As a result, the meat industry is experiencing an unprecedented disruption from a rapidly growing demand for plant-based alternatives such as tofu, natto and tempeh.
In the meantime, national media outlets like the Guardian and specialised publications such as Country Living started following a new trend: Regenuary. Unlike the fairly self-explanatory rules of Veganuary, Regenuary is more nuanced and involves eating seasonal produce from farms that proponents say have lower, or even beneficial, environmental or social impacts.
This idea is gaining ground and “regenerative” may be the farming buzzword of 2022, according to the Guardian. Regenerative agriculture, a process that aims to reverse the effects of climate change through diversifying cropping rotations, was already perceived as the latest buzzword within the sustainability debate. Topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity and improving the water cycle were among the developments discussed by journalists.
A number of publications noted that most plans to mitigate climate change focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while regenerative agriculture aims at drawing down greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere, mostly through the cultivation and nurturing of forests, permanent perennial pastures and grasslands.
The media’s focus on the environment suggests that there might be an interesting socio-cultural shift in the attitudes towards veganism. Rather than personal health, which until recently was the main motivation for people to choose meat and dairy alternatives, consumers are now driven by more collectivist values.
However, Health and wellness was still a large topic in the debate – a number of articles mentioned that excessive meat diets can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and coronary heart disease.
Demand for fortified and functional products, in particular, has increased as the concept of food as medicine has gained traction, which has propelled interest in products with immunity-boosting ingredients. The media has also popularised studies that have established a link between obesity and the risk of more serious illness or even death due to Covid.
However, journalists remarked that the global economic recession resulting from the health crisis not only affected the choice of products but also consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for such products. As job losses and ongoing economic uncertainty are forcing many consumers to tighten their belts, affordability has become an important purchasing criterion, which could potentially hamper the growth prospects of health and wellness products with premium price points.
The Ethics topic involved the ethical aspects of meat consumption and animal rights in particular. This issue was often cited as the main cause for many consumers to go vegetarian or vegan, with the most popular arguments being that animals have consciousness and feelings, and that cruelty towards them is morally wrong.
The Market trends topic focused on how the wider meat alternative market is booming: it is set to account for around 10% of the $1.4 trillion-a-year global meat market by 2029, according to oft-cited research from Barclays.
Fast food in the spotlight
We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around Veganuary 2022.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
Interestingly, the most impactful organisations in the discussion were some of the synonyms of unhealthy eating – Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC.
As fast-food companies maintain their long-standing reputation for being unhealthy, to the extent that researchers draw comparisons with the tobacco sector, many of them are eager to promote themselves as “part of the solution”.
Burger King earned its influence by launching its first vegan nuggets in the UK at a time many consumers are looking to embrace Veganuary. The firm said its latest offering, made from soy and plant proteins and available nationwide from tomorrow, will “taste the same as their meat originals”. The UK arm of Burger King, which has 505 stores and is reportedly eyeing a London stock market listing that could value it at £600 million, has committed to make half of its British menu meat-free by 2030.
And following a successful trial in over 250 restaurants late last year, McDonald’s first plant-based burger – McPlant – was available across the UK and Ireland in time for Veganuary. Co-developed with plant-based meat producer Beyond Meat and designed to retain the taste and quality of McDonald’s meat patties, the McPlant burger is, according to the fast-food chain, “the ultimate vegan substitute”.
KFC, on the other hand, launched vegan chicken in all U.S. locations for Veganuary. Moreover, the fried chicken chain returned its Original Recipe Vegan Burger to restaurants across the UK and made it a permanent fixture on the menu due to popular demand.
Apart from fast-food chains, a couple of coffee giants also managed to penetrate the media conversation. For example, Starbucks UK was mentioned for finally dropping its alternative milk levy and introducing three new oat milk latte flavours, including a strawberry and vanilla version.
Caffe Nero unveiled sweet and savoury options for people eating vegan this year – the most popular launch was a vegan ‘chicken arrabbiata panini and ‘sausage’ ciabatta. Costa Coffee added new vegan options to its menu, including Vegan Macaroni Cheeze, which the coffee giant described as featuring a ‘vegan cheese sauce and fresh spinach, all topped with a delicate parsley crumb’.
Pizza chains also secured their place in the debate, as Pizza Hut collaborated with Beyond Meat to introduce plant-based Beyond Italian and Domino‘s expanded its vegan range to four pizzas.
But supermarkets managed to earn a bigger influence than coffee and pizza chains, as many outlets published advice on how to shop during Veganuary. For example, journalists mentioned that budget supermarket Aldi has gone all out with its vegan range this year – the thing that’s really caught the media’s attention was its first-ever vegan cheese. Morrisons introduced 54 products to their range that are 100% plant-based, while Marks & Spencer upped the ante with delicious new items including veggie meatballs, Tikka Masala Curry and a vegan take on the BLT.
Some beauty brands were mentioned for touting ethical credentials – for example, The Body Shop, which has confirmed they do not test their products or ingredients on animals, and KVD Vegan Beauty, which went 100% vegan in 2016, were recommended by some outlets for use during Veganuary.
The global campaign also gathered momentum as more large employers promoted it internally. This year, Harrods, Superdrug and Volkswagen UK were among the big names mentioned in the media for taking part in the Veganuary “workplace challenge” for the first time.
A discussion driven by influencers
Our analysis found that many of the most prominent spokespeople in the Veganuary debate were influencers and celebrities who publically supported the movement.
Celebrities such as Dr Jane Goodall, Joanna Lumley and Venus Williams have all backed this year’s campaign. “Veganuary‘s mission is to make the world a kinder, safer, happier place for all, which makes their January campaign utterly irresistible,” Lumley said in a statement. “I’m in awe of every single person taking part for the climate, our rivers and oceans, forests and wild places, animals and people.”
While most of them focused on the environment, others like Paul McCartney talked about animal cruelty. The singer has been a fervent supporter of PETA to promote a more respectful life for animals and living beings on the planet.
Influencers with a scientific background, like English primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, were also cited on similar topics – Goodall said that animal agriculture, where animals are kept in these intensive factory farms is shockingly cruel and we have to realise that farm animals too have personalities and emotions can feel happiness and fear. Other scientists like Dr Alona Pulde revealed just what happens to the body after going vegan for a few weeks.
However, Veganuary’s director of communications Toni Vernelli emerged as the most influential spokesperson in the conversation. She was quoted as saying that 20 years ago if people said they were vegan, others would think it was a “weird thing to do” or “quite extreme”: “Now the first thing people say is ‘oh, I’m really cutting back on my meat and dairy consumption,’ and nine times out of 10 the reason is the environment.”
Vernelli was also cited as saying that it was important for business leaders to “set the tone”, because meat and dairy consumption is not sustainable and the leaders in our society have to take action on this. Taking on the campaign’s challenge is a “fun way to unite” teams, she said, while “demonstrating [businesses’] commitment to reducing their impact on the planet and improving the health and wellbeing of their employees”.
Corporate spokespeople focused their messaging on how their companies are responding to the growing demand for vegan products. For example, Marcus Denison–Smith, Marketing Director at Caffè Nero, told the media that the coffee giant has been transforming its food offer over recent years to offer more variety with better quality ingredients for a range of evolving customer requirements.
Andy Shovel, Co-Founder of plant-based company THIS, talked about his partnership with Caffè Nero, saying that he particularly loves how simple and effortless the new vegan products are. Similarly, Mays Elansari, Head of Marketing at Subway UK, said that is proud to have one of the widest and tastiest ranges of plant-based choices on the high street, without any compromise on flavour or taste.
Meanwhile, Cian O’Brien, the director of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles UK, said the company was focused on becoming more sustainable, and that went beyond its work on electrification. “Sustainability is broader and the opportunity to make a personal contribution through changing our habits has to be explored,” he said.
How can brands strengthen their vegan campaigns?
Although the main issue of many media debates around veganism is climate change, not many brands and corporate spokespeople in that space centred their messages around that topic, as we saw in our analysis.
For example, the fast-food chains focused their messaging on assuring consumers that their vegan products taste just as good as their regular offerings: Burger King said that its new vegan nuggets “taste the same as their meat originals”, while McDonald’s focused on the message that the McPlant was designed to retain the taste and quality of its meat patties.
As such, there’s a missed opportunity for brands to gain even more exposure and influence.
Here are a few ways brands can incorporate climate messaging to make their vegan products more mainstream:
- Make environmental concerns as important as taste and health. Communicators working on vegan-related campaigns should focus not only on personal tastes and health benefits but should also take advantage of the shifted perceptions of civic duties and responsibilities. The experience of coming together to handle a great crisis may increase confidence in the collective response and foster a sense of personal efficacy and responsibility – the pandemic has shown that even small individual actions like wearing a mask can have a massive influence. As research on climate engagement consistently points to the importance of efficacy — the belief that individual actions do make a difference — communicators could tap into the newly emerged community values and reiterate that small individual actions like recycling could also have a massive influence.
- Add societal issues to the ecological mix. The ‘people’ factor of sustainability is rising up the agenda. Brands can’t hope to tackle climate change without also addressing the structural inequities that mean some groups – such as women, BIPOC communities, LGBTQ+ communities and people with disabilities – are disproportionately impacted. Companies need to address the social dimension of global warming, showing that they understand that the most vulnerable people bear the brunt of climate change impacts yet contribute the least to the crisis. As the impacts of climate change mount, millions of vulnerable people face greater challenges in terms of extreme events, health effects, food security, livelihood security, water security, and cultural identity.
- Jump on the regeneration trend. Reganuary will be a far bigger part of Veganuary in 2023 for sure. Regeneration is all about a positive impact rather than just doing less harm to the planet. A truly regenerative approach will be properly yoked to business and brand initiatives from strategy to social justice, guiding decision-making and delivering positive impact across the triple bottom line of people, planet and prosperity. According to a Wunderman Thompson study, 83% of consumers think businesses and brands should focus on a positive impact, rather than just doing less harm to the planet. A more specific action rather than making just a pledge also goes a long way. Take BrewDog, which claims to be the world’s first carbon-negative brewery. It has purchased land in Scotland to create a BrewDog Forest of 1 million trees and restored peatland. In so doing, the brand is carving a reputation as a leader tackling the climate crisis.
- Try to address problems beyond your industry. Look at how Volkswagen went beyond electrification – its own industry’s priority – and joined Veganuary to tackle climate change. This could even extend to rethinking what a brand does and how it does it, creating a whole new business model. Businesses are seeing the value in working with others across systems, collaborating with stakeholders and even going so far as to set competition aside to pursue loftier goals. Take the pioneering collaboration between Adidas and Allbirds, which aims to co-develop a sneaker with the “lowest-ever carbon footprint.” By sharing technical research, learnings and expertise, they hope to hit the goal faster than by going it alone. The past year has also seen a host of business consortia and collaborations to collectively pursue net-zero goals, like Microsoft’s Transform to Net Zero, or Gucci’s CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge.