How veganism went from a fringe food cult to a multibillion-pound industry

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

We are delighted to be featured in the article ' How veganism went from a fringe food cult to a multibillion-pound industry'

Once considered faddish, plant-based eating is now a huge movement. But has it drifted too far from its ethical roots? Read on...

Arthur Ling decided to go vegan in 1926 – 18 years before there was a word for it – motivated by ethics and a concern for the environment. Ling chaired the newly formed Plantmilk Society in 1956, helping to popularise soy milk in the West. More than 60 years later, Plantmilk has become Plamil Foods, a Kent-based manufacturer of soy milk, egg-free mayonnaise and dairy-free chocolate.

“From there being tens of vegans around the country there are now millions and millions,” says Adrian Ling, Arthur’s son and the managing director of Plamil Foods. Ling says the company has experienced “exponential growth” in the past year (it is doubling production on most of its products in 2019), yet he is keen not to stray from the principles that motivated his late father.

“We produce everything as ethically as we can – we use renewable energy,” he says. The company has an “ethical policy” on its website, where it commits to recycling waste, forgoing tax havens and only using Fairtrade cocoa in its chocolate bars.

When the newly founded Vegan Society outlined its principles in 1951, it defined veganism simply as “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”. For 70 years, veganism has principally been driven by ethics. Yet just as modern hyper-capitalised feminism strays from the movement’s more revolutionary roots (in 2014, the Mail on Sunday reported that Whistles’ £45 “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts were made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour), commercialised veganism is causing concerns. What’s lost when the animals gaining the most from veganism are fat cats?

“Vegan products have been in health-food stores for many years and they’re in supermarkets now because big companies have come in and they have the economic force to get them on to the shelf,” Ling says. “Which is great for veganism, but where does the money go?”

In January 2018, Ethical Consumer magazine warned its readers about vegan brands owned by meat and dairy parent companies. Alpro, one of the largest vegan milk alternatives, is owned by Danone – a French multinational company with a 24.4 per cent share in the global fresh dairy product market. “On social media, people are starting to ask where their money is going,” Ling says. “Is it just going into a pot of profits that’s ploughed back into the meat or dairy industry?”

Concerns have already arisen about Marks & Spencer’s range. On 7 January, the supermarket came under fire when consumers noticed some of its Plant Kitchen products were labelled “not suitable for milk or egg allergy sufferers”. The company explained on Twitter that cross-contamination in factories means that the range may not be entirely free from eggs and dairy.

“I think that’s wrong,” says Ling. Plamil manufactures dairy-free chocolate for a variety of other UK brands (none of which Ling will disclose), because industrial chocolate machines are difficult to clean, meaning dairy chocolate factories can’t rule out cross-contamination between batches.

“I think manufacturers should be encouraged to follow a completely ‘free from’ [eggs and dairy] approach,” Ling says. He disagrees with the Vegan Society’s decision to award its trademark to products, provided cross-contamination is kept to a minimum, because he believes this allows companies to be lax for the sake of profits.

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