Image: Sausage Roll from stu_spivack's Flickr Photostream

Sausage Rolls, Flexitarians and the Fight for Sustainability

The beginning of a new year offers the chance for renewal (“new year, new you?”). Increasing numbers of people are subscribing to (orchestrated) campaigns to kickstart a healthier lifestyle. Giving up drinking for the first month of the year has proven consistently popular since Dry January was first conceived in 2012 where 4,000 people took up the challenge – 2018 figures report as many as 4 million people now participate. So too Veganuary – trying out a plant-based diet for at least 3 weeks (reportedly the optimum time required to break habits) is increasing. Interestingly vegan diets have been the focus of significant media attention recently. The appearance of a new range of vegan sausage rolls in all 50 stores of the Greggs bakery chain has attracted extensive reporting in traditional and social media. Vox pops on the streets of Glasgow described how positively these have been received by the initially wary consumer:

“They do just taste the same. If you’d have told me that was a normal sausage roll, I’d not have known.

“Since it just tastes the same I’d just get a normal one but if there was only one there, and it doesn’t taste any different then why not?

“I’m usually put off vegan stuff because I’d rather just eat meat, I don’t know if it’s the whole lifestyle and how much vegans try and promote it

Here the vegan sausage roll is described as having all the qualities of the “normal” sausage roll, but the speaker does not just focus on the product but also the assumed evangelical nature of ‘being vegan’. This is not a new framing of the practice of veganism. Back in 2011, a study identified that vegans were depicted in the media as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or in some cases, hostile extremists. Indeed, these sentiments were again mobilised in late 2018 in one of the biggest media stories involving Waitrose food magazine editor William Sitwell whose responses to a polite request for a vegan food series were vitriolic:

How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?

Sitwell argued vociferously that his comments were clearly intended to be humorous but was forced to step down as an editor with John Brown Media, who produce the Waitrose & Partners Food Magazine.  Waitrose made a public statement about his resignation as being the right and proper move. His views were judged as out of synch with what is believed to be a widening interest in plant-based diets.  Indeed Marks and Spencer and others are developing vegan ranges with statistics suggesting that a significant number of post-millennials (so-called ‘Generation Z’) believe the world could be meat-free by 2030. However realistic this projection might be, it seems that Sitwells’ comments were rather an own goal given that Waitrose is leading the promotion of plant-based products that cater for the public acceptance of veganism and the rise of the  ‘flexitarian’ consumer (a plant-based diet that claims to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health with an eating regime that’s mostly vegetarian yet still allows for the occasional meat dish). He was considered to be very much on trend with the contemporary plague of entitled anger that toxifies public discourse whenever entitlement is challenged, however politely.

While there is evidence that the media has traditionally fuelled the narrative of veganism as puritanical, hypocritical and joyless (‘vegaphobia’) perhaps things are changing? One barometer of shifting social mores is popular entertainment.  In 2018 the Great British Bake Off had a vegan week for the first time. Reports suggest that veganism might be moving into the mainstream and becoming reframed from the exceptional to the norm:

If this is the year of mainstream veganism, as every trend forecaster and market analyst seems to agree, then there is not one single cause, but a perfect plant-based storm of factors […] it is being accompanied by an endless array of new business startups, cookbooks, YouTube channels, trendy events and polemical documentaries.

So far the trend in veganism from ‘dull’ to ‘desirable’ has been helped by high profile and gendered celebrity endorsement –  but this very much promotes veganism as an individual lifestyle choice which takes little account of wider politics.

The recent IPCC report challenges that narrative by recommending that we change our diet away from land-intensive animal products.  So eating less meat (and dairy products) may become a societal goal on the grounds of sustainability. Traditionally, veganism has been predicated on a concern for animal welfare and anti-speciesism (the assumed moral right to eat animals).  The fact that the practice could be the result of scientific advice offers a reframing which might prove attractive to a wider range of citizens such as post-millennials concerned about climate change and planetary health who become mobilised as a targeted consumer group. This shift is not without obvious commercial opportunities, however:

Rapidly growing consumer awareness and changing eating habits have combined with a dawning realisation about the extent of the sustainability crisis to send shockwaves through the food production industries. With broad agreement that the future of animal agriculture has to change, the big money investors are moving quickly. Richard Branson announced last year that he was investing in a startup called Memphis Meats, which is developing lab-grown meat from animal cells as an alternative to animal agriculture, sometimes called “clean meat”.

Lab-grown ‘clean meat’ is assumed to be more ethical, environmentally responsible, and healthier. Products including beef steaks, chicken nuggets, and pork sausages are grown in vats from cells. However, there is great uncertainty about the ethical dimensions of the process and how these products will be embedded in consumption practices. As the authors of a recent study of interviews with scientists conclude:

care must be taken to recognise the systemic nature of these challenges and that technofix approaches, such as cultured meat, should not be viewed as the only solution. We argue instead for a multi-faceted response which includes a range of approaches, including promoting meat reduction and plant-based proteins, improved waste management strategies, and policy reforms that redress the systemic inequalities within contemporary protein and livestock food systems.

The Greggs campaign around their vegan sausage roll launch has been described by industry magazine PR Week as a master class in public relations. It sparked celebrity outrage in a tweet from Piers Morgan and public protest involving Brexit supporters who bizarrely claimed that veganism was a plot by the ‘EU mafia’.

Clearly, this savvy PR has helped the baker’s profits, but there may be more serious issues at stake if we are to think of how to live more sustainably. As meat consumption is becoming linked consistently to heart disease and various cancers – so veganism that once appeared faddish and eccentric may become a relatively simple action that people can take to improve both their own and the planet’s health. In so doing we need to pay attention to the social dimensions of food. Choices concerning plant-based diets from Waitrose or a high street snack from Greggs are inevitably tied in with overarching structural issues. Consumer choices reflect not only taste preferences but affluence, social class and aspirational living. Might the vegan sausage roll signify a changing demographic within veganism or simply a short-lived media storm?