Not business as usual
The plant-based trend is unstoppable, and big corporations are jostling for a piece of the vegan-friendly pie. But where does this leave the small, ethical trailblazers?
As a sequin-loving, vegan disco queen, I never thought I’d be part of the cool club, but here we are. Veganism is definitely ‘on trend’. Everyone from the Kardashians to royalty are clamouring to explore the delights of plant-based food and cruelty-free fashion, beauty, and lifestyle products.
The popularity of plant-based foods across the globe is being driven by the rise of ‘flexitarians’ – those who are committed to cutting down on animal products but haven’t completely eliminated them from their diets, according to research by Euromonitor. This group, comprising largely of Gen Z consumers, actively seeks out plant-based alternatives to their favourite meats, cheeses, and other items. Research by Nielsen shows 98 percent of people who buy plant-based meat in the US also purchase animal-based meat products, and 73 percent want the plant-based meats to mimic the taste of animal meats.
This has led to an ever-widening range of plant-based options (that don’t taste like cardboard or rubber), which goes on to influence even more plant-curious purchase decisions. Importantly, both vegan and non-vegan consumers alike want easy access to plant-based products.
BIG CORPORATES: FRIENDS OR FOE?
Enter the large corporations who once upon a time dismissed veganism as a rather extreme and weird lifestyle that would never catch on. Well, they’ve made quite the turnaround on that. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a slew of multinationals – including massive meat and dairy conglomerates – invest in or buy out vegan brands, with many more releasing their own vegan product ranges.
Since these corporations aren’t always known for their ethics regarding animals, people, or planet, their moves into the plant-based space have been met with criticism in some quarters, with accusations of ‘greenwashing’ or ‘purpose washing’. Ethical consumers in particular are asking questions such as: If we support these companies, aren’t we contributing money to animal cruelty in an indirect way? And, aren’t these big corporates just profiteering from the plant-based trend?
David Benzaquen, vegan investor and plant-based food consultant at Mission: Plant in New York, says it’s necessary to calculate trade-offs. “Working with large corporations who have fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders to maximise profits will almost definitely result in lower-quality ingredients, less sustainable packaging, and so on,” he says. “However, it will also result in larger advertising and marketing budgets to make the public aware of the products, distribution into many more stores and restaurants, and lower prices which will make trying plant-based foods more desirable and accessible.”
Miyoko Schinner, founder of vegan dairy firm Miyoko’s Creamery in California agrees. “Whether or not we like it, we are racing against time for the planet and animals, and the faster vegan businesses can grow, the sooner we’ll become the norm and overtake animal agriculture,” says Schinner, whose company was mentored by Nestle in 2018 as part of a food and agriculture accelerator. “Unfortunately, growing the infrastructure for this type of massive growth requires serious investments, and even then, it’s difficult most of the time to go solo. We can try to be pure and sell at farmers’ markets, and not be able to have the global impact we seek, or we can work within an established system and use it for what we can.”
WHAT ABOUT THE SMALL TRAILBLAZERS?
But where does the corporate influx leave vegan start-ups or legacy brands that paved the way for the plant-based boom? These independent businesses often go out of their way to do right by people and planet, as well as animals, by implementing fair work practices and sustainability measures. And since they receive none of the government subsidies given to the animal agriculture industry, this results in their raw materials or ingredients, and therefore end products, tending to be more expensive. Add to this the costs of manufacturing, rents, marketing and advertising, and other costs of doing business, it’s clear that independent brands can’t compete with the large corporations directly.
While big corporates continue to pose a challenge to independent vegan businesses as customers – including vegans – embrace the cost and convenience benefits of the larger firms, it’s not all bad news. Some smaller companies have seen success through a buyout or investment. Vegan meat company Field Roast was bought by Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods, and saw a fast uptick in sales growth. The US brand Sweet Earth, which was acquired by Nestle, made use of the corporation’s distribution networks to get its frozen and chilled meat alternatives and ready meals sold in thousands more stores.
Independent vegan brands will need to find ways to continue to innovate and attract new customer markets. Food safety expert Heather Landex urges plant-based food companies to take steps to appeal to those with allergies or food intolerances. In her new book Inclusive: The New Exclusive, she claims that food service businesses could increase their revenue by 10–15 percent by being more inclusive of minority eaters.
Justin Mead, founder of Vegan Style shoes and accessories store in Melbourne, says that smaller businesses like his have the advantage of being more agile and can adapt rapidly to new technologies and materials, allowing a greater number of sustainable products to be available to the wider market. “It is challenging for those of us who are driven by ethics first, rather than profit, but we will continue to evolve and adapt as big corporates step into the space vegan businesses have created,” says Mead.
CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS LEAD THE WAY
For many committed vegans, rejecting animal exploitation and harm is the key factor in their buying decisions. However, among flexitarians and non-vegans (a much bigger market by far), health is most often cited as the number one driver to buy plant-based food products, followed by environmental concerns, and animal welfare. This tells us the market is growing because people with diverse values are choosing plant-based options.
As the conscious consumer market continues to grow, especially as younger generations seek to support purpose-driven businesses, vegan certifications, as well as other ethical business certifications like B-Corp, will continue to become more important. There are numerous vegan certification organisations, from Vegan Australia to the Vegan Society’s trademark in the UK. The latest entrant is BeVeg, a global certification program, which has received ISO (International Organization for Standardization) accreditation. Formed by US lawyer Carissa Kranz, BeVeg aims to make vegan labelling laws much more robust.
While some of us envision a vegan economy that is not reliant on large corporations, Schinner reminds us that we’re in a transition period where we need to take the positives that come from collaborating with large corporations, and shift our thinking on it. “Perhaps it’s the vegan companies that are taking advantage of the big corporates and using them for their systems, infrastructure, supply chain, and reach,” she says. “And perhaps by working with them, if we do a killer job, we’ll eventually be able to turn them around.”