As someone who grew up in a mostly vegetarian household (and went vegetarian in my preteens), becoming vegan felt like a far and unnecessary stretch. I had already given up animal consumption, something my mom’s love of animals inspired me to do, so why not enjoy cheese? Becoming an avid environmentalist in my early 20’s answered that question for me.
At this point it’s widely known that eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth, reducing an individual's carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. Five years ago, I found statistics like this one eye-opening. While I’d gone vegetarian for the animals, discovering the planetary benefits of veganism made me all the more firm in my quest to be plant-based. I made the commitment to an entirely plant-based diet with the goal of cutting my carbon emissions down even further.
Being vegan is becoming increasingly common but just a few years ago in New Zealand, my home country, the diet was considered extreme and limiting. Currently, there are now over 0.5 million British vegans, with around 20% of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK following a vegetarian or vegan diet. In fact, in the last decade the number of people in the UK following a plant-based diet has risen 340%.
This increase in popularity coincides with an increased interest in environmentalist issues, particularly from Gen Z, who started the global climate movement Fridays For Future. The continued investment in new vegan alternatives (cue two of my favorites Beyond Meat or Just Egg) also indicates a shift away from animal products for good. Even more scientific advances such as lab grown meat are also already on the near horizon.
Growing vegan alternatives and popularity makes it easier to make the switch to plant-based food, but veganism is still far from being accessible to everyone. If we all went vegan, the world’s food-related emissions would drop by 70% by 2050, according to a recent report on food and climate in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), but statistics like this don’t paint the full environmental picture.
As a vegan for environmental reasons, I’m often concerned about the white-washing of veganism. Veganism has historically been weaponized to violate Indigenous food sovereignty, by painting traditional hunting methods as unethical, when in fact Indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity (despite being less than 5% of the world's population). There are numerous other instances where veganism is less conducive to an environmental worldview that prioritizes people, such as for low income families or people in eating disorder recovery.
For these reasons, the veganism I align to personally is nuanced. I wear second-hand leather instead of new plastic alternatives because they are more sustainable, and don’t advocate for everyone in every culture to turn vegan—just for the overhaul of western livestock production practices, to be replaced with planet-based alternatives or Indigenous practices.
After being vegan for over five years, my thought process behind my veganism changes often, as I learn more information about the climate crisis and potential solutions. One thing that won’t change is my belief that the mainstream vegan movement often misses the point by focusing on animals. I care about the environment because I care about people, as communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. With this in mind, any movement that preaches sustainability but in practice is exclusionary is not an environmentalist movement. My hope is that conversations around switching to a more plant based lifestyle will not only become more accessible but also more intersectional. Only then will veganism encapsulate the planetary benefits the statistics promise.