Let’s face it: veganism has terrible PR. I’ve been eating a mostly vegan diet for 10 years, but I honestly don’t talk about it with people unless I know them really well.
For a lifestyle I volunteered for in an effort to reduce my environmental footprint, that may sound pretty horrible. But it’s true.
I chose to live a plant-based life because, as an ecologist, I deeply understand how deeply meat production is impacting our environment. I also believe it’s my responsibility to live consciously, for both my fellow humans and the environment.
I did a lot of research before making the switch, too. I wanted to understand how all of the food I ate would affect my health as well as the planet. Health-wise, I knew it would be to my detriment if I cut out meat without subbing in another form of protein (and I don’t believe eating hyper-processed meat substitutes is “healthy.”) I also knew that some vegan options could often be environmental nightmares themselves (almond and coconut, to name a few).
I like to think I approached the diet change pretty thoughtfully. Which is perhaps why my particular flavour of veganism is a little unorthodox: while I cook exclusively vegan meals, I’ll eat meat or dairy if it’s going to go to waste because I believe food waste is a worse sin than eating animals. And if there’s something I really, really want (namely, turkey on Thanksgiving or Christmas), I won’t restrict myself from having it.
…I understand this might make me “not vegan enough” for some vegans.
Regardless on my approach, there’s one critical factor that has enabled me to live plant-based: I have the privilege of being able to choose.
Yet I often have conversations with vegetarians and vegans where there’s a belief that people choose not to become vegan because they don’t care about animals, the environment, or their own health. And this is simply not true.
Veganism just isn’t an accessible diet for most people
Of course, there will always be people who won’t give up meat because “they like the taste.” But most people I’ve met who haven’t considered a plant-based lifestyle really don’t fall into that camp. Most of them either don’t know the environmental ramifications deeply enough to consider a change or honestly can’t afford to eat organic or expensive produce.
There were a lot of things in my life that had to coalesce — and continue to sit in my favour — that made it possible, if not easy, to choose a vegan lifestyle. And I believe it’s really, really important to be humble about these things, because they confer deep, lasting advantage:
- I was born in Canada to a middle-class family. I had parents who were fit and healthy and showed me how to eat well and enjoy high-calorie, processed food in moderation.
- My father was a physician. Along with my access to Canada’s universal healthcare, I also was steps away from in-the-moment medical advice from my father and his doctor friends.
- I was always well-fed, went to good schools, and encouraged to do my homework. My mother prepared all our meals, including all of the bread we ate, from scratch. She could do that because she didn’t have to work.
- I could afford to attend university to the Master’s level. I was taught how to think critically about the world, how to question what I see on TV, and how to read and understand food labels.
- I’ve had steady, permanent work in a field that hasn’t been impacted by recessions or global pandemics since I graduated. I don’t have to set a limited grocery budget every week that minimizes my ability to select healthy, vegetarian foods.
- I have no children, no debt, and no sick relatives that I have to care for. All the money I earn goes to supporting my own lifestyle, which significantly reduces any financial stress I might run into.
I could go on, but I’m sure the picture is pretty clear: I had, and have, the privilege to explore a vegan lifestyle. And I think that’s really, really important: veganism is a choice that can only be made from a place of privilege.
When people ask me why I’m vegan, I talk to them about what I’ve learned. I invite them for dinner so I can cook them some cheap, healthy meals that don’t make them miss meat (or leave them hungry). I try really hard not to judge or assume a position of superiority for my choice, because I know why I was able to make it.
And I want to believe that, if vegans knew the research on successful food marketing that’s led to long-term behaviour change, they’d make the same choice.
The 3 keys of food marketing: cheaper, better, healthier
During my Master’s, I tried to answer a question that had nagged at me for my entire adult life: why have sustainable seafood awareness campaigns ultimately failed to change consumers’ purchasing decisions?
Most of the fish species we eat are endangered. Many of the fish “stocks” we eat have collapsed, are on the verge of collapse, or recovering from collapse. Yet in all of our attempts to get consumers to change their habits (primarily through education and the addition of sustainability labels to consumer goods), post-intervention surveys largely found, even among eco-conscious individuals, consumers didn’t change their purchasing habits.
While I didn’t love that answer, I felt the truth was, in some ways, empowering. People don’t change their behaviour because it’s “good for the environment.” They change their behaviour because it’s good for them.
For most of us, food is about pleasure. We love to try new things and experience new cultures. Our relationship with food is so much deeper than eating itself. It encapsulates family, love, connection, tradition, and so much more. We imagine meaningful conversation with our partner at a new restaurant; being surrounded by our family on Thanksgiving eating home-cooked food; tucking into our favorite meal on a cozy night in.
We certainly aren’t thinking about how cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, or the fact that all 3 species of Bluefin tuna are endangered and decreasing in population.
As much as I wish everyone was thinking about the impact their eating habits had on the planet and making decisions based on that, I know they aren’t. Why? Because I’m not. Why would I expect anyone to be making daily decisions that I’m not even making? Sure, I choose a vegan lifestyle. I also hop in a Lyft in the winter instead of walking when it’s cold. Pre-COVID, I would fly home multiple times a year to see my family. I run the heat in the winter and AC in the summer.
As much as I try my best to live consciously, I still make a lot of decisions that prioritize my own enjoyment or convenience over the environment.
Why? Because sometimes it’s hard, inconvenient, or just not pleasant to make the “right” decision.
So when it comes to food, what does make people change their behaviour?
Based on my research, there are three primary motivators when it comes to changing a person’s diet: taste, cost, and health.
People will convert to vegetarianism or reduce their meat consumption if they learn it can help them lose weight or reduce their risk of diabetes, for example. They’ll eat a Beyond Meat burger if it’s cheaper than beef. And they’ll swap their meatloaf for lentil loaf if it tastes better.
My plea to vegans
So here’s my plea.
If our goal truly is behaviour change, then shouldn’t we focus more on understanding and education? I’ve personally found success helping friends and family cut out processed and red meat while integrating vegan options into their diet simply by listening to them and helping them cook healthy, easy, cost-friendly vegan meals.
I don’t honestly believe that meat-eaters don’t care about the environment or animal welfare. I believe it’s instead indicative of something else: they might not be educated in the issues; they might not have the nutritional know-how to change their diet; they might be afraid of being judged by friends and family for giving up meat; and they might not know how to cook vegan meals that are as cheap as kraft dinner or hamburger helper.
As vegans, when we tell people they need to stop eating meat, protest in front of game restaurants, or condemn their choices, we’re igniting a fire. We’re casting blame and shame. We’re not educating people. We aren’t making change.
When people feel their identity and self-perception is threatened, their reaction will never be to change. Self-righteousness serves no purpose but to stroke our own ego. If our goal is to help educate our fellow humans about the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet and how they can do it…well, start by listening. I have a suspicion we might be more effective that way.