Across the last decade, a once transgressive and eyebrow-raising word — ‘vegan’ — has become synonymous with luxury diet culture. This transformation from inconsequential diet to famed lifestyle has been created through capitalist mechanisms, with of course the intent to sell. To think of veganism today is to associate it with a privileged lifestyle which extends beyond abstaining from animal products, but rather brings to mind an image of an idealised way of living. This image is a direct proponent of how veganism has been sold to us. The capitalist market has an affinity for creating new and lavish lifestyles out of any trend that is popular and has the potential to be transgressive. Take fitness, and the expensive lifestyle that comes with it: gym memberships, trendy work-out clothes, protein shakes, specialised sports shoes, and so on. These things are not requirements to become fit; they are, however, required to take part in the lifestyle of fitness as a culture. It is in this same way that veganism has become twisted into a commercialised culture monster, hell-bent on selling us things we don’t actually need to be vegan — dairy and meat substitutes.
It is important to note that veganism is not a modern Western advent. Despite the term being explicitly coined in 1944, trends of animal meat avoidance and abstention can be traced back to ancient Indian, Greek and Eastern Mediterranean societies, pre-capitalism. This history teaches us that veganism doesn’t have to be inaccessible; these barriers of inaccessibility were created by modern commercialisation. Across the twentieth century, commercial plant-based alternatives were by no means non-existent, but there was not the same market abundance and brand competition we see today. When the Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Company was founded in 1898, it began producing some vegetarian products, but no other significant meat-alternative company was globalised until Linda McCartney Foods in 1991, along with several others developing in the 90s.
It has taken nearly a century for veganism to break into the mainstream by a significant enough margin that capitalism has taken it on to generate profit, desperately needing to ensure that it feeds back into systems of capital because veganism encourages consumers to diverge from highly profitable pillars of agribusiness, such as the meat and dairy industries. The result is the creation of a vegan lifestyle that appears to be dependent on highly expensive substitutes. Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of meat and dairy substitutes contributes to the myth that veganism is inherently more expensive than eating a carnivorous diet. While for many years, substitutes were expensive because there was very low demand, in recent years that have seen a boom in veganism’s popularity, there are more vegan options than ever; yet prices remain high. If the greed of capitalism is allowed to dictate the accessibility of veganism, prices will never be lowered to match higher demand, and new vegan products will continue to be introduced to the market at these exorbitant prices.
The trend of animal-product substitutes has now become integral to the diet’s identity. This in turn drives the community’s relentless search for the latest vegan products — I relate to the excitement — but I know that this excitement is rooted in the consumerism that is hard-wired into us by capitalist society. Aided by a sickly materialism, we feel an urge to spend money on whatever society deems desirable in that moment, and through these capitalist tendencies, veganism has become a desirable image to be sold.
Ultimately, what was once a little-known, subversive dietary preference, has been repackaged and sold to us as a sought after lifestyle which carries connotations of wealth, success, and eliteness. In these ways, it projects the image of a perfect, unattainable person who we chase to become but cannot catch, allowing the cycle of consumerism to continue. It is critical to see that the landscape of being vegan in the 21st century does not place everyone on equal footing. The ways in which vegan culture often perpetuates the idea of universal ability to go vegan blatantly ignores not only specific health conditions and economic situations, but it ignores the extent to which animal-products are built into modern life. The consumer should not be blamed for the horrors that capitalism endows on society as a collective, where only fundamental systematic change is capable of forging a better world free from corporate greed.