In its heyday of January 2019, Veganuary saw 250,000 participants sign up for the official challenge, with countless more going plant-based for a month without registering.
The movement, first started by a York-based vegan couple in 2014, quickly transformed from a non-profit campaign educating the public about veganism into a massive global marketing initiative. Fast forward to today, and the meat and dairy-free industry has exploded from the bare-bones basics of almond milk and soy sausages to include everything from hemp ice cream to salmon-free sashimi.
2023 saw a spate of headlines like “Is the millennial obsession with going ‘vegan’ over?” and “Has the vegan bubble burst?”, but declining interest in Veganuary and the reduction of plant-based product lines don’t necessarily spell the end for the market. Instead, meat and dairy-free brands must remain agile to consumers’ evolving perceptions, lifestyles and demands.
Plant-based ranges slashed
Last year, The Guardian questioned whether the vegan bubble had finally burst as some of the world’s biggest food brands scaled back their plant-based ranges. This included Oatly, which withdrew its dairy-free ice-cream tubs from the UK market just four years after their launch, and Nestlé, which put a halt to its entire Garden Gourmet and Wunda brands, claiming they were “not viable” under current market conditions.
The cost-of-living crisis has hit brands in the plant-based space hard – especially those offering premium ranges rivalling the price of meat. But trimming the fat and scrapping unprofitable product ranges aren’t moves exclusive to vegan brands – the wider food and drinks sector has seen similar scale-backs.
In fact, this cull may have strengthened the health of the plant-based market in the long run. After a flood of new brands and products during the 2017-2020 veganism boom, supermarket shelves had become oversaturated with choice. How many different soy burger options does a vegan really need?
The court of public opinion
We’ve heard from the press, but what do consumers think? Let’s look to Reddit for some honest opinions and anecdotes from the UK public. This thread on r/AskUK includes some interesting discourse.
The comments reveal a range of complex issues impacting people’s views of Veganuary, veganism and plant-based products, most of which fit into the following four categories:
Cost and value
The cost of living inevitably has people pinching pennies. Whether it’s true or not, perceptions that products like meat and cheese substitutes are more expensive than the real deal proliferate, leading people to turn back to omnivorous habits.
Some people view Veganuary and veganism in general as fad diet trends that are naturally coming to the end of their boom period. According to this logic, people who have tried Veganuary have now either settled into a permanently plant-based lifestyle or abandoned the idea altogether.
Shifting health perceptions
While people once saw cutting out meat and dairy as the key to weight loss and enhanced well-being, varied ideas about nutrition and health have since emerged. These range from reactionary “extreme carnivore” diets to low-carb keto regimes, to more moderate flexitarian approaches. Many critics also point out the ultra-processed nature of many dairy and meat substitutes.
Political and environmental discourse
Associations between veganism and saving the planet were once a motivator for many to ditch meat and dairy. Now, they may have backfired. Those who don’t agree with the causes and actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil – for whom a plant-based diet is a big part of their mission and identity – may feel alienated from engaging with plant-based products. On the opposite side of the argument, consumers are now quick to spot greenwashing – any plant-based product claiming to be “green” will face quick scrutiny for the use of palm oil, unsustainably farmed soy and a long list of other sins.
The press was perhaps a bit too quick to declare the death of UK veganism, as data from Statista tells a different story.
While sales revenue of vegetarian food and drink products and plant-based alternatives fell from 1.5 million in 2020 to 1 million in 2021, momentum has picked up again since, hitting the 1.2 million mark in 2022.
Combine this with the fact that big brands’ core plant-based product offerings have stuck around on supermarket shelves through it all, and you have a more optimistic picture of the market. The Linda McCartneys and Quorns of the industry have been around for yonks, and are showing no signs of shifting.
Plant-based products are back on the up, but has the face of veganism changed for good?
The future of veganism
Despite provocative headlines, it’s unlikely that plant-based eating is going to disappear anytime soon.
While things have changed since 2019, when almost a quarter of food launches were plant-based, consumers are still interested in these products, just in different ways.
From meat-free Mondays to just opting for oat milk in coffee, people are embracing flexibility and choice. Brands must stay informed about these changing lifestyles and ways of engaging, and adapt to suit them if they want to thrive.
With so-called ‘flexitarianism’ appealing to many thanks to its convenience, consumers don’t want to see brands allying themselves with puritanically plant-based messaging. Customers are often content to buy plant-based products from brands that also offer ranges that contain meat or dairy.
Cater to all budgets
With increasing pressures on household budgets, most shoppers are not willing to shell out £10 on pea protein patties, however fancy the packaging and production process. Veganism is no longer seen as a trendy novelty that people are willing to splash out on temporarily. Instead, consumers are searching for more long-term ways to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, without directing that spend towards equally expensive alternatives.
Keep things simple
The drive to innovate increasingly bizarre sources of vegetable protein has been strong over the last few years, but overly processed foods are coming under scrutiny. Many meat eaters point out the lack of logic behind switching to vegan for your health, only to consume more “ready meal” style plant-based products high in salt and preservatives. Sometimes the tried-and-tested recipes are the best.
So there you have it – while Veganuary may be becoming a little less popular, the plant-based market is still thriving. With some simple adjustments to embrace consumers’ new attitudes and priorities, brands offering plant-based products can continue to enjoy success.