Celebrated as one of London’s top “foodies” on Instagram, Clare Every, a vegan influencer known as @thelittlelondonvegan, can remember a time when finding vegan content online was something of a challenge. “The vegan scene is almost unrecognisable from a few years ago, in the best possible way,” the 32-year-old tells me. “When I first went vegan, I’d say that social media played a part in my decision but it was nothing like it is now. I was able to find a couple of bloggers talking about it whose words resonated with me,” she says.
Three years on, social media platforms have become Every’s “primary source for recipe inspiration”, as well as her go-to place to source information on vegan restaurants and plant-based product launches. “Lots of activists use their pages to spread the word about veganism in creative ways too,” adds the influencer, who has amassed more than 116,000 followers on her own Instagram page where she shares the latest on what and where to eat in London.
While being a vegan once felt like something of a solitary act, Every says that today, there is a thriving vegan community on Instagram and TikTok. In the past year alone, both platforms have reported a major surge in engagement with vegan content. The #vegan hashtag has had more than 6.8 billion views on Tik Tok and 105 million posts on Instagram, with #vegetarian following closely behind. This surge in engagement comes as The Vegan Society reports that the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2016 (around 276,000) and 2019 (around 600,000).
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Many people get their first taste of veganism through Veganuary, a campaign challenging participants to embrace a plant-based diet for at least the month of January each year. This year, the campaign has seen record-breaking sign-ups, with more than 560,000 people from around the world joining the initiative, compared with the roughly 400,000 who signed up last year.
“We’re just blown away, to be honest,” says Toni Vernelli, head of communications at Veganuary. “People keep signing up right through the month, so we’ll end up with even higher than that.”
Beyond Veganuary, research conducted by Kantar found that more than 800,000 people cut back on eating animal products in 2019. Data released by Nielsen, and published by The Grocer, also revealed sales of supermarket beef and pork fell by £185m in 2019, with health concerns and other objections to red meat helping drive the decrease. Meanwhile, plant-based products emerged as the fastest-growing category in the Top Products Survey, surging up 18 per cent to be worth over £400m.
Vernelli attributes the rise to several factors, including a growing awareness of the impact of factory farming on animals and on the environment. Growing media coverage, documentaries and books on the negative impacts of the meat and dairy industries have helped expedite awareness, but celebrity backing from the likes of David Attenborough and Leonardo DiCaprio has also likely played a major role, along with social media influencers, who make veganism accessible, often at zero cost to their followers.
For Tiffany Shirley, one such influencer, who goes by @vegan_at_tiffs on Instagram, social media was a gamechanger. She admits feeling “ignorant” about the ethical concerns over eating meat and dairy before becoming aware of them on social media and turning to veganism herself five years ago. “When I was growing up, I saw eating animal products as the norm and never really took a step back to question it. Whilst I’m not a massive animal lover, I made the decision that I no longer want to consume animals, wear them or support the exploitation of them in any form.”
While Shirley originally started her vegan Instagram account to find inspiration for what to cook in the kitchen, she is now one of the influencers setting the menu, sharing her passion for animal rights and vegan cooking with her nearly 13,500 followers. “Instagram has such a community factor, as many of us don’t have vegan friends in real life, so it’s nice to be able to have a space where we can interact with those who have similar values.”
Veganism is associated with diet culture – the words ‘guilt-free’ or ‘skinny’ are still plastered on vegan options
But while the online plant-based communities have gained traction in recent years, they have not done so without problems, with criticism that the scene faces the same systemic issues affecting society at large and a growing number of users calling for the voices of vegan influencers who are black, indigenous and other people of colour (BIPOC) to be elevated.
While Shirley says she has developed a strong support network on Instagram, she says: “The vegan scene on social media is whitewashed. There are BIPOC in this online space too, however there is a severe lack of representation.” She hopes that this doesn’t “deter marginalised groups from considering veganism” and that her presence “alongside many others will encourage people to explore the lifestyle”.
Every, who writes about the importance of anti-racism on her account, agrees, saying that when we talk about the “rise of veganism in the west” we must also remember that “veganism is not a new concept” or a passing fad. “Cultures and religious groups around the world have been cooking vegan food naturally for centuries. It just wasn’t called veganism,” she says.
Celebrating vegan food from around the world and seeking to shatter stereotypes is something that some of Every’s favourite vegan influencers, the “Plantboiis”, aim to do each day. A self-described collective of “lads” in the UK from different walks of life, “Plantboiis” is a group of vegan influencers that have come together to challenge stereotypes about veganism and show that it can and should be for everyone.
“England is a multicultural country and it’s got people from all sorts of different backgrounds, so it’d be absurd to have a group of vegan men that didn’t represent as many people as they could in the country,” Essex-based vegan influencer and Plantboiis member Jacob King tells me.
Why are the group’s members all men? King, AKA @pengveganmunch, explains: “Often, veganism isn’t seen as a ‘manly’ thing to do – it’s not masculine to be vegan. So, we’re trying to prove that ‘normal’ men can be vegan and you don’t have to change anything about yourself, your personality or who you are."
Each member of the Plantboiis brings something unique to the table, with King, at times, drawing on his mixed-race Caribbean and British roots for inspiration, including for his favourite dish – jerk tofu – while Ebenezer Odeniyi, a vegan influencer and Plantboiis member known as @veganezer, has taken pleasure in making plant-based versions of some of the classic Nigerian dishes he grew up with.
Calum Harris, known as @madebyblitz on Instagram and TikTok, is the youngest member of the group and, at 22 years old, is quickly building up one of the biggest UK-based vegan accounts on TikTok, according to a spokesperson for the platform. Amassing upwards of 26,000 followers on Tik Tok and more than 32,500 on Instagram, Harris is determined to put to rest a misconception that has plagued vegans for decades: that they can’t possibly be getting enough protein.
“I drop a new recipe every day and I always make sure it’s got some sort of protein because I think that’s really a misconception about the vegan diet – that to be a gym-goer or to get protein you need loads of beef,” Harris tells me. That is simply not the case, he says, with vegans able to have a protein-rich diet thanks to a range of sources, including legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, tofu and seitan.
A constant shortage of protein is not the only myth about veganism that influencers have been working hard to dispel, with one account, @uglyvegan, often credited for leading the way in proving that “there’s more to veganism than salad”, as its tagline states. Sharing the best of the UK’s vegan fast food and junk food with her more than 71,000 followers, Lucie Johnson, the Londoner behind the @uglyvegan account, has made strides in showing that eating vegan does not always have to be synonymous with eating “healthy”.
“I do still think that veganism is associated with diet culture – the words ‘guilt-free’ or ‘skinny’ are still plastered on vegan options,” Johnson says. “I believe that veganism goes far beyond a ‘diet’ – it is a lifestyle. For me, the absolute heart of veganism is making kind choices on behalf of animals, humans and the environment.”
Ultimately, this is what the vegan scene on social media seeks to do. But proselytising can have the opposite effect. David Attenborough himself has previously said that while he recommends that people around the world stop eating meat, he cannot claim “any moral virtue” on the matter as he has not managed to make the full switch to veganism himself.
While some of the online plant-based content may take the all-or-nothing approach, much of it is accessible, relatable and – perhaps most importantly – judgement-free. For anyone considering making the switch but apprehensive of failure, Odeniyi says not to be discouraged. “Don’t be scared to fail, just do it over and over and over again and enjoy your journey. Just do it when you’re ready and look after yourself.”
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