To Veganuary or Not to Veganuary: The underlying issues of seasonal veganism

To Veganuary or Not to Veganuary: The underlying issues of seasonal veganism

By Elif Beste Gül

Veganuary has started to slip into everyone’s vocabulary much like its elder siblings Movember and Dry January. With each year the debate surrounding the validity of the trend grows: Its top enemies are both nutritionists and the vegan community itself. While Veganuary doesn’t challenge us to embrace veganism to its cores completely, it still hails a significant number of benefits that shouldn’t be ignored, and the vegan community could use a bit of a push into being more accepting if it wants more people to join their fight.

Having come to the end of another Veganuary, you might be familiar with it as a trendy pledge, but it is actually a non-profit organisation that was founded by Jane Land and her husband Matthew Glover in York, England, in 2014. Its goal is plain and simple: go for a plant-based diet for the month of January. So- what is the problem with this, you might ask? While some nutritionists are a fan of this challenge, some are not. And the vegan community? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s possible to see haters and sceptics among them, too.

I am not a vegan myself at the moment. However, my diet has gone into a more flexitarian direction in the last couple of years, and my lifestyle has developed into a more sustainable one. This is how I encountered Veganuary.

Its controversy pushed me to find out more: going cold turkey into veganism seems a particularly daunting idea to me, having come from a meat-loving country like Turkey.

Before we dive into the imperfect aspects of Veganuary, let’s look at some numbers first:

The pledge in numbers

Considering Veganuary 2020 had 400,000 registrations to take part, in addition to the thousands of pledgers who didn’t register through the website, it is safe to say that Veganuary is popular. It is also proving beneficial for the environment. Since its conception in 2014, the collective impact of those who partake in the trend has been huge:

  • 103,840 tonnes of CO2eq has been preserved, the equivalence of driving around the world almost 15,000 times
  • 405 tonnes of PO43-eq has been saved, the same as 1,645 tonnes of sewage
  • 6.2 million litres of water has been saved, equivalent to flushing the toilet almost half a million times
  • More than 3.4 million animals have been saved according to the Vegan Society’s Veganalyser calculations

Meatless January?

While the numbers are promising, there is still confusion surrounding the whole concept of Veganuary. One would assume that, given its popularity, everyone would have become an environmental fairy by now – well, not really. From the pledge’s supporters promoting it by simplifying and reducing the trend to ‘going meatless for a month’, to your average citizen being stumped by a jar of honey (to eat or not to eat), there is a clear lack of education around the concept. This is one of the main reasons why some argue that the pledge fails to serve its purpose effectively. But how far can a non-profit organisation go?

Considering its celebrity ambassadors, including Joaquin Phoenix, Paul McCartney and Alicia Silverstone, combined with its work with 24 partner organisations in the aim of adding 13 new countries such as India, Australia and Singapore to its promotion scope,  we could say that this non-profit organisation actually has an impressive reach.

Big corporations like PwC, EY, Bloomberg, Nestle, M&S and Quorn participated in ‘The Workplace Challenge’ in 2020, where staff were encouraged to take the pledge. The copious mainstream exposure to Veganuary clearly isn’t enough when it comes to the task of educating people – but let’s not forget that this is still a developing process.

Rose-tinted glasses

It is always best to take off our rose-tinted glasses when looking at complex matters such as this. A growing number of people who participate in Veganuary to appear trendy often don’t commit to this with much education, much like those who participate to lose weight. Nutritionists and the vegan community are justified in some of their criticisms when it comes to educating new vegans and vegan-curious people.

Whilst it is a yes from the nutritionists to explore a plant-based diet, it is without a doubt frowned upon to do this without much research or preparation. NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom finds that Veganuary isn’t really a “realistic goal” for everyone. The “interested-but-uneducated” consumer could risk facing nutritional deficiencies.

Even though it is still worth a shot to undertake this challenge, going for the vegan alternatives of junk food is also a big no, according to Gearhardt, an associate psychology professor at the University of Michigan and director of its Food and Addiction Science & Treatment Lab. Replacing meat and cheese with their ultra-processed vegan counterparts is far from a healthy diet.

A flexitarian identity crisis

Flexitarianism can be defined as part-time veganism/vegetarianism which is focused on reducing carbon footprint without eliminating any food group from a diet. “That’s not vegan”, a statement taken from the viral Jubilee video,  can help us when we are talking about flexitarians as most new vegans/vegetarians might be following a flexitarian diet unknowingly. The video involves six vegans trying to find the non-vegan (the ‘mole’), and one of the participants is an eager vegan who attracted some negative criticism from viewers for their aggressive tone.

It is possible to come across people who incorrectly identify themselves as vegan, and Veganuary features numerous such members. Veganuary itself doesn’t promise complete veganism for 30 days as this is near impossible for newcomers to achieve. Sceptics find the challenge superficial as veganism is a lifestyle very much concerned with ethics in all parts of our lives rather than just confined to dietary choice. This, coupled with the accidental flexitarians, attracts a great deal of criticism, sometimes from the not so friendly vegans as is the case in the Jubilee video.

Acceptance

Veganuary or not, the vegan community has problems accepting people with flawed vegan lifestyles. From racism to too much perfectionism, the community has a lot to work on if they want to attract more people to join their fight.

In response to Veganuary’s popularity, a rising number of corporations have started to produce vegan options, making life easier for already-vegans and encouraging those who want to try a plant-based diet. The fact that these corporations still sell unethically produced foods on the side is a whole other issue. Ultimately, it is clear that a compromise should be reached. Veganuary is far from perfect – but its perks considerably outweigh its flaws and rather than squabbling over perfectionism, we must consider the bigger picture of the cause.

Graphic courtesy of Katherine Marriott