It seems fitting to write a blog post about veganism at the end of January as millions of people, including some in the Ethical Screening office, have participated in ‘Veganuary’; a pledge made to eat vegan for the whole month launched by a non-profit organisation in 2014. In 2019, 366,000 people signed up via this platform, with hundreds of thousands more taking part individually. Data collected after the 2019 event showed that 4.7% of the total UK population gave up animal products in the UK. In 2020, participation has been estimated to be even greater.
For some people veganism is a diet; for others it’s a lifestyle; and most recently a tribunal has ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief protected under the Equality Act. Veganism means cutting out all animal products such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs. The most common reasons cited for becoming vegan are generally for the environment, for animal welfare (the ‘for the animals’ argument is a more personal reason for veganism and will only be touched on here ) and for health (also not discussed - we are not healthcare professionals!) Whatever your feelings are towards veganism, the chances are you’ve thought about it or talked about it.
As a company, we provide tailored information to a range of individuals, investment managers, financial advisors and other institutions to enable them to make investment decisions based on what is important to them. It is interesting, but not surprising, that all of our clients have different requirements on what ethical or sustainable means to them, which is reflected in the service we provide to them. Our office is always brimming with discussion and this month, with two of us taking part in Veganuary, we have talked a lot about the subject. So how does veganism relate to our external impact on the world?
The relationship food has with the environment and climate change is topical not only because of the Veganuary campaign, but because of the current climate emergency. A special report on ‘Climate Change and Land’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in 2019 summarises data and findings from all regions of the world, collected over two years. It states that “climate change creates additional stresses on land, exacerbating existing risks to livelihoods, biodiversity, human and ecosystem health, infrastructure, and food systems” and that “plant-based foods (…) present major opportunities for adaption and mitigation”. Poore and Nemecek's article published in Science journal in 2018 reveals the inefficiency of the global animal agriculture system; with 83% of worldwide farmland being used for livestock, but only contributing 18% of calories and 37% of protein. The same journal found that impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceeded the average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins across GHG emissions and land use; emissions from animal feed production typically exceed emissions of vegetable protein farming; deforestation for agriculture is mostly for animal feed, particularly soy; and that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce an individual’s impact on the world. The argument here for adopting a plant-based diet is that those foods on average make more efficient use of land, which can offer future opportunities as climate change increasingly puts pressure on agricultural practices. And this only considers carbon emissions, not to mention the waste, water, energy and other emissions that animal agriculture produces.
The average person undertaking a month of eating plant-based saves on average 33,000 gallons of water, 900 square ft of forest space, 600 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, and the lives of 30 animals. When measuring the impact of beef, various sources state that 1kg of the finished product requires around 15,000 litres of water to produce. This is taking into account the whole supply chain, including the water used to make the animal feed, etc. On the other hand, one of the sources also states that 1kg of chocolate uses around 17,000 litres of water, that 1kg of apples uses 822 litres and that 1kg of beer uses 74 litres. Obviously, these all have different nutritional values, are consumed for different reasons and meals, and are eaten in different quantities.
This is where considering the wider impacts of food creates dilemmas, such as social and supply chain impacts. What about transportation methods? Is eating locally produced grass-fed beef automatically worse than eating a soya-based meat alternative? What if it uses soya grown in the Amazon and is transported across the world and is then packaged in non-recyclable plastic? If no, how about considering the accessibility of that locally produced grass-fed beef? What are the implications of making a distinction between beef for those that are privileged and those that are perhaps not? These are just some of the questions that have come up during office discussions, and show the variety of opinion and complexity surrounding our food choices. Just like our clients, we all base our standards on different ethical aspects for various reasons, but we are all pretty conscious and aware about where our food comes from and why we choose to eat how we eat.
The rise in veganism has meant a rapid growth in the vegetarian and vegan food market. One of the best UK examples is the Greggs vegan sausage roll, introduced in January 2019, causing the company’s share price to soar, and being credited as having a big part to play in the doubling of its share price in a year. According to various studies, there has been a 469% increase in people interested in veganism and in 2019, £30m more was spent on vegan products in the UK. Of the people undertaking the official Veganuary pledge, 47% stated they would stay vegan.
The vegan boom has reached the financial markets in more ways that just the revenue associated with sales of vegan products. An exchange-traded fund (ETF) called the US Vegan Climate Fund was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in October 2019. As the first vegan-labelled fund, it pledges to exclude companies engaged in animal exploitation, defence, human rights abuses, fossil fuel extraction and energy production. The holdings of the fund are described in news sources as not "exactly what investors may be expecting" and "surprising". The top 5 are: Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Visa and Mastercard. All of these companies have their own controversies, but like the fund states, are not directly involved in animal exploitation.
It all seemingly comes down to what, to you, is the lesser evil. I also made a pact in January to not buy any non-recyclable packaging, and when I was faced with a choice of buying a vegetarian product containing egg packaged in cardboard, or buying a vegan product packaged in plastic, I chose the first option. Just like some of the ethical dilemmas discussed in this blog, being mindful, aware and understanding of the choices we make is probably more valuable than trying to be perfect.
For more information: