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Not so long ago, veganism was considered suitable only for extreme animal rights activists and hippies. Now, veganism is considered trendy and healthy. A few years earlier, sustainable consumption had experienced a similar transformation. This raises the question, what is the reason for such changes in the public imagination?
In her doctoral thesis, Outi Lundahl argues that one of the major drivers of these changes has been celebrities. In her thesis, she then explores the question, how and why do celebrities and the media contribute to the rise of a previously marginalised form of consumption.
“I initially investigated the new-found status of sustainable consumption, but turned my attention to the rise of veganism in the UK when something unexpected happened: in December 2013 pop diva Beyoncé along with her husband, rapper Jay Z decided to go vegan for 22 days. Interest in veganism seemed to explode because of this stint and I became intrigued”, explains Lundahl who will defend her doctoral thesis at the University of Vaasa, Finland.
“What was particularly interesting about this case was that Beyoncé and Jay Z did not seem to adopt veganism as a moral ethos, which would restrict the use of animals and animal by-products in all aspects of life”, Lundahl continues. “The most striking example of this was Beyoncé wearing leather and fur to a vegan restaurant. This, of course, angered the animal rights movement and raised many questions as to her knowledge of veganism.”
Indeed, in her doctoral thesis, Lundahl finds that as the number of celebrity vegans increased, from Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez to Bill Clinton and Mike Tyson, the meanings related to veganism changed. In fact, celebrities have transformed veganism from a political, moral lifestyle to a diet for health and weight-loss purposes.
There are many benefits to veganism. The United Nations, for instance, has argued that a more plant-based diet would be highly beneficial for the environment as meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Vegans also tend to have a lower body mass index, and the diet has many health benefits. One must also take into account the ethical considerations of refraining from animal based products.
“However, if the meanings and motivations for being a vegan change so that the diet is adopted merely to lose a couple of kilos after Christmas or if it is followed due to celebrity emulation, it is likely that the diet is soon forgotten”, Lundahl argues. Veganism would then remain another fad diet among others – such as the Atkins diet or the gluten free diet.
This is why Lundahl argues that while there is hype around veganism as a healthy diet, the general public should also be educated about other benefits of veganism. In this way veganism would be appreciated in a more holistic way, as a complete, lifelong lifestyle. While the media has its role to play in increasing the understanding of veganism, the government could also take part in this conversation. It could, for instance, more actively support children and students who want to make a difference by following a vegan diet in their school lunches.
“It is in the interests of the environment, public health as well as animal rights”, Lundahl concludes.
In fact, Lundahl’s doctoral thesis shows that such a downward trend is already seen in the case of sustainable consumption. While sustainable consumption was very trendy a few years ago and was led by some vocal celebrity proponents, the trend very quickly died down. Institutional support is thus required to make sure the same does not happen to veganism.
While her analysis focuses on the rise of veganism in the UK, she finds the Finnish community Sipsikaljavegaanit an interesting phenomenon.
“Contrary to the mainstream media, Sipsikaljavegaanit promote tasty, even calorific vegan recipes online. However, even though again the focus is on the diet aspects of veganism, and even though animal rights or environmental aspects are not discussed, I must applaud efforts to make veganism seem tasty, fun and easy. In this way veganism will hopefully lose its image as something extreme and strict.”
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