Does Veganuary promote innovation over impact?

This year’s campaign saw record numbers of sign ups and product launches, but there’s little evidence that meat sales are falling. David Burrows reports.

In January, the environment news site offered the following teaser to an article dedicated to this year’s month of meat-free: “Veganuary 2022 is coming to a close – and whether you measure success in terms of individual commitments or business participation, the campaign has had its best year yet.”

Some 625,000 people signed up this year, up on the 580,000 in 2021. The innovation wheel spun into overdrive with the McPlant burger rolling out at every McDonald’s, Pizza Hut adding vegan chicken toppings, Bella Italia creating an egg-free carbonara, and Burger King launching vegan ‘chicken’ nuggets.

Domino’s PepperoNAY pizza and Starbuck’s Tu’NAH sandwich were clear winners in the annual plant-based pun-off. ‘What the cluck?’ screamed the Daily Telegraph, ‘Vegan brands are making money from silly-sounding meat’.

But seriously: are we really measuring the success of a campaign designed to encourage people to eat less (or ideally no) meat, fish, dairy or eggs for 31 days on the number of new products or, even more dubiously, the number of people that sign up – while likely still under the influence from the festive season?

“The article made me quite miserable,” says one campaigner. “I’m not knocking Veganuary as it’s clearly shifted the dial but new product launches can only take us so far.” 

So, is there a better metric with which to assess Veganuary’s influence and counter the sceptics who see it as nothing more than a commercial opportunity to push more processed foods?

The hype around Veganuary certainly offers an opportunity to air some very important issues – animal welfare, healthy eating and the link between food consumption and climate. 

Food system emissions, for example, are now thought to account for 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Of all the emissions from food production, 57% come from animal-based foods and 29% from plant-based, according to a study in Nature Food. More people than ever comprehend the links between consumption and climate change – and the popularity of Veganuary has helped.

Research in 2015 by Chatham House and the Glasgow University Media Group showed eating less dairy or meat came bottom of the changes people were prepared to make to reduce emissions. Part of the problem was “very, very low” understanding of the link between what they eat and carbon emissions, one of the researchers told me at the time. Fast forward to now and a recent survey found that around one in two people in the UK understand that following a vegan diet can lower their carbon footprint. 

That figure might be lower than you expected. However, consumers remain pretty stubborn when it comes to their diets. Change can be uncomfortable – as many of those signing up to Veganuary quickly find out. After six months, 30% of those signing up to Veganuary are still following the diet, according to the campaign’s data, while 38% say they are eating at least 75% less meat and animal products than they used to.

Those are impressive statistics. Still, those dropping out told other pollsters that their choices are limited by price and availability (especially when eating out, reportedly). They also worry about lack of protein and miss the variety offered when they could eat beef and cheese. 

Diversity in the dish

Foodservice operators and food retailers certainly have a role, here. They can spend more money on innovation and advertising (as they do for Veganuary every year) but more importantly they can make plant-based products and dishes the ‘normal’ choice year-round.

Recent research in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed how veg-heavy menus can sway more diners towards a meat-free option. “Niche products on the edge of menus will remain niche,” says Simon Billing from the Eating Better alliance. “It needs to be over 50% plant-rich to have any impact,” he adds. Research by the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project at the University of Oxford has come to similar conclusions.

With this in mind, it is folly to think the success of Veganuary can be measured by the kookiness of the creations, the beefiness of the bean burgers, the money spent on marketing or the scale of the sign ups. If what we are seeking is long-term, sustainable change, then a one-month quick fix won’t cut it.

“It’s crucial to start building an understanding of the impact [Veganuary promotions] have on purchasing and consumption of animal products, rather than just increasing sales of plant-based,” says Joanna Trewern, a PhD researcher at the University of Surrey and sustainable diets & behaviour change specialist at WWF. Her analysis of the impact of a Veganuary promotion run by a leading supermarket showed impressive sales for plant-based products (that also continued well beyond the activity) but no significant reduction in meat sales. “It’s a tough nut to crack,” she explains.

With all this in mind, surely the best metric of Veganuary's success is how many companies commit to a clear target for shifting their protein portfolios from animals to plants? To date, as far as I can see, only one major foodservice or hospitality brand has done so. 

Compass, as part of its net-zero commitment, has targeted a “40% switch target from animal to plant-based proteins by 2030, with an interim target of at least 25% by 2025”. The menus Compass developed as caterer for COP26, in Glasgow, were 40% plant-based, which led to vegetarian and plant-based dishes accounting for 60% of retail sales at the climate talks. 

Others have also begun shifting their menus. According to data shared by Sodexo with the Food Foundation, 62.5% of its UK healthcare menus are suitable for vegetarians and 34% are fine for vegans. Some 40% of Elior’s recipes are vegetarian. As part of the Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative, which encourages businesses to sell and serve more vegetables, four of the 18 restaurants, caterers and wholesalers assessed have also committed to increase sales of vegetables (Compass, Sodexo, ISS and Greggs).

Fairr, the $48trn investor network, has also been tracking 25 leading food companies (manufacturers and retailers) and their efforts to diversify the proteins in their portfolios. Five years ago, no company was talking about protein, let alone thinking around the commercial and climate opportunities associated with alternative proteins, Fairr wrote in a 2021 report, ‘Appetite for disruption III’. In the past two years, seven of the firms it tracks have set some sort of time-bound target to diversify their protein portfolio. 

Metric muddle

However, there is a lack of consistency in the methodologies and metrics companies are using to report on the proteins they use. There are two principal approaches in play, according to Fairr. One involves reducing or eliminating animal-derived products in the portfolio. The other is growing the plant-based portion without interfering with the initial animal-derived product. 

“We found hurdles for companies to set protein diversification targets,” explains Maria Lettini, Fairr executive director. These included: the lack of an industry-wide definition on plant-based foods and alternative proteins; the lack of systems in place to diagnose the “plant-based-ness” of product portfolios and the time and resource intensity to implement them; and the lack of metrics reflecting a portfolio transition. 

Of the companies Fairr tracks, five have formally disclosed metrics that track a protein transition. “At the moment we are not aware of any commitments from the fast food chains to diversify their menus towards meat and dairy alternatives,” adds Lettini.

Most of the big high street food chains have introduced or trialled a plant-based alternative but there are no clear targets being set. “A key priority for us this year is for companies to set targets and report on their sales of healthy foods, fruit and vegetables and protein procurement [animal source versus plant-based],”says Chloe MacKean from the Food Foundation. 

The balance of plant- versus animal-based proteins and how you measure it is the first challenge; the next is identifying the type of plant proteins that companies are parachuting in. Are they ultra-processed burgers that can be high in salt, sugar and/or fat, or more traditional vegetarian dishes using lentils and beans?

Hannah Baker, livestock policy manager at NFU Scotland, recently wrote of her confusion during Veganuary and the “almost blatant disregard for a healthy diet. The products that thrive in Scotland under the mantle of Veganuary are almost all junk food,” she noted, and “almost all these products are a synthetic attempt to mimic real meat, rather than championing some seasonal vegetable or plant centrepiece”.

Better plants

She has a point – and one which companies should expect plenty more scrutiny on in the coming months. 

Mark Driscoll from Tasting the Future, a consultancy, is calling for the ‘less but better meat’ concept to be extended to plants – in other words, ‘more but better plants’. So, fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes (including the multitude of forgotten crops), produced in systems that build soil health, improve biodiversity, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and improve farmer livelihoods. “This is where the imagination of chefs can be so important,” he writes in a piece for Footprint due to be published next week, “creating healthy and sustainable dishes that inspire people”. 

According to the national food strategy, we must reduce meat consumption by 20% to 50% for the UK to reach net-zero by 2050. Veganuary, which is due to publish its end of campaign report later this week, is playing its part but don’t be fooled by thousands of sign-ups and myriad meat-free products. It is companies committing to shift their portfolios and their menus from meat (and dairy) to better plant-based products and dishes that will make a difference. Just one major foodservice company has done that but if that number grows between now and January 2023 it would be something to celebrate.

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