Another Veganuary is upon us, where those who know the difference between a vegan and a Venusian try to add more of the green side to their diet for at least a month.
This year we’ve seen yet more companies leaping on the passing bandwagon. Greggs, perhaps inspired by its previous sausage-roll-gate experience, has hit the headlines again, this time with an animal-free variety which for some reason incurred the wrath of pastry-based snack aficionados everywhere.
That poster-boy for free-thinkers, Piers Morgan, became the torch and pitchfork bearer for anyone appalled by Greggs’ outrageous sell-out to the pitiful minority of its customers who wanted an animal-free alternative.
“Pizza Express has been offering vegan options for nearly three years and Pret-a-Manger has been at it much longer”
So paltry was the appetite for this ersatz abomination that it did indeed sell out almost immediately, leaving stores struggling to meet demand.
Pizza Hut and M&S took the opportunity to invite fans of their own new vegan offerings to send Mr Morgan some love via social media as they realised that providing such fare was not just about sales, it was also solid PR gold.
But none of this is particularly ground-breaking. Pizza Express has been offering vegan options for nearly three years and Pret-a-Manger has been at it much longer. Even the once ubiquitous West Cornwall Pasty Company was indulging us annoying plant-munchers well over five years ago, as have pubs and restaurants across the country.
Up until recently ethical consumerism has been fairly niche, lending itself more to the premium sector. For most ordinary shoppers, when it comes to saving the planet or saving a few quid, the latter usually takes precedence. But that’s changing and retailers are responding.
The likes of Greggs and Pizza Hut might be late to the party, but they know a good thing when they see it. The fact that more mundane brands are embracing plant-based options is a sign that ethical shopping has well and truly entered the mainstream, and if that also annoys Piers Morgan, what’s not to like?
Veganism isn’t just about what we shove into our faces. Healthier food may be the most visible manifestation, but the top motivation being cited by new vegans is concern over climate change.
“How can we continue to sell increasing amounts of stuff, made from a finite amount of resources, to more ethically savvy consumers?”
Over 70 billion animals being farmed every year for food is a statistic that should be hard for anyone to swallow, and numerous reports have singled out livestock as one of the largest single contributors to global greenhouse gases, responsible for around 15% of the total. That’s more than every internal combustion engine on the planet.
Recent dire warnings about environmental catastrophe have hit home with conscious consumers, and the inexorable rise in veganism is just one result.
Such movements can no longer bee treated as momentary fads. How retailers respond to this zeitgeist will determine how they survive in a culture where disposability and consumption for its own sake will become far less acceptable.
Retailers, like most other businesses, constantly pursue growth, but that isn’t logically compatible with the new mantra of sustainability, and that’s a difficult circle for us to square.
How can we continue to sell increasing amounts of stuff, made from a finite amount of resources, to more ethically savvy consumers? The answer, of course, is that we can’t. That doesn’t mean an end to shopping, just an evolution, and retailers are traditionally pretty good at evolving.
H&M, for example, already makes an increasing portion of its product range from recycled materials, while incentivising customers to return old clothes as part of its Close the Loop initiative. This is a great example of driving consumer engagement with a conscious environmental message, but it can’t stop there.
The ethical dimension is something no business can afford to ignore and, if it’s not there already, it’s coming to a high street near you soon. If retailers, along with the planet, are going to have a chance of long-term survival, it really can’t be soon enough.