British Columbia·Growing Vegan

The moral market: How a rise in ethical consumption pushed veganism mainstream

Part of the increased interest in vegan, plant-based products is fueled by a bigger societal shift about how we view our consumer choices.

As trust declines in governments' ability to make change, consumers are taking things into their own hands

A customer picks out a vegan option in a supermarket. There's been a heightened connection between people's consumer choices and their ethics in recent years. (Hadrian / Shutterstock)

When Elyse Jacobson, a professional violinist, was on tour in Denmark, she remembers a time when her diet requests failed to register.

"We got to the venue [and] the promoter who was a very sweet, friendly man was describing to us that, you know, there's lots of meat for your dinner," Jacobson said from Vancouver, B.C. 

When she explained she was vegan, he didn't skip a beat.

"He said, 'Oh, no problem, I'll have them bring you some fish,'" she said with a dry laugh.

That was nine years ago. Today, Jacobson, 35, says people are more aware of vegetarian and vegan diets. She's the administrator of the Vancouver Vegans Facebook group, which has more than 8,000 members. Seven years ago it had just 250 members.

Jacobson doesn't eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or honey. She also avoids wearing animal products such as leather, using products tested on animals, and supporting businesses that use animals for entertainment, like zoos and circuses.

Vegan as ethical choice

Abstaining from meat has a long, rich history, with roots in world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Today, in light of the growing climate crisis, vegetarian and vegan diets have gained new currency as the ethical choice by animal rights activists and environmentalists as a way to protest factory farming conditions and the industry's carbon footprint.

"People choose to make ethical consumption decisions most closely related to a desire to reduce their impact on the environment," said Emily Kennedy, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, who studies ethical consumption.

"In terms of the emissions from animal agriculture, we really don't have a good set of policy options right now, so ... veganism is actually a fairly decent option."

Elyse Jacobson, 35, has been vegan since 2010 and is the administrator of the Vancouver Vegans Facebook group. The group has over 8,000 members. (Diane Smithers Photography)

A B.C.-led trend

Jacobson became vegan in 2010 after watching a documentary on the use of animals in industry.

"It affected me really deeply and I kind of knew as soon as I watched [it] I had to make a change," she said.

And she's not alone. A recent study from Dalhousie University showed the number of Canadians interested in these diets has risen over the last few years.

Women are 1.6 times more likely to consider themselves vegetarian or vegan than men.

Consumers living in British Columbia are three times more likely to identify as vegetarians or vegans than consumers living in the Prairies or the Atlantic Region.

And those under 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than those 49 or older. 

'It's exploded'

While the sheer number of vegans is still not large — B.C. has the highest proportion in the country at 1.6 per cent — Jacobson has noticed a rising interest in the idea of veganism.

She estimates the Vegans Facebook group she administers has grown by another 1,000 members this year. 

"It's exploded," says Jacobson.

"There are not just vegan and vegetarian restaurants ... We have a vegan shoe store in Vancouver. There's a vegan cheese shop."

Demonstrators participate in a climate strike in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Many people are looking for ways to lessen their climate impact, and going vegan is one popular choice. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Part of this 'explosion' in interest is fuelled by a larger societal shift about how we view our consumer choices. 

According to Kennedy's research, the connection between personal shopping choices and ethics has heightened in recent years in tandem with a growing concern for the environment.

Personal shopping choices now carry the weight of the planet in every transaction, she says. 

"You demonstrate [you are] a really ethical person by making moral choices through what you buy."

Kennedy says there are two reasons for this shift. 

One, trust in the government's ability to make change is declining. Two, people are short on time and making an ethical consumer choice at a grocery story is much more convenient than traditional modes of political activism like attending town hall meetings. 

Ethical consumption makes consumers feel like they can make daily choices that can tackle an overwhelming issue — that of climate change or industrial scale factory farming. 

Limits to ethical consumption

But using the power of your wallet to make social change has its limits. 

While going vegan has a positive environmental impact, Kennedy says it doesn't have the same impact as more overt political changes like collective action or government policy like regulations to change how global supply chains transport goods, or how the way we raise animals.

Also, a vegan crop that is mass-produced may still depend on cleared rainforest land, long-distance transport, or other environmentally-harmful practices.

"The food system is just morphing to add these ethical options, while continuing to maintain unethical labour and production practices," Kennedy said.

Jacobson knows that any choice will have ethical conundrums — but maintains doing something is better than nothing. 

"To me being vegan is not about pretending that it's possible for us to cause zero harm," she said.

"It's really about minimizing the amount of harm that we caused to the fullest extent possible."

Growing Vegan is a multiplatform CBC Vancouver series that explores how the business of veganism thrives in B.C. Follow the series on The Early Edition weekday mornings and On The Coast weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, and watch CBC Vancouver News at 6 weekdays and read the daily stories online at cbc.ca/bc.

With files from Ethan Sawyer

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