Catches-22 & 23 of ethical consumption: the political economy of veganism

Veganism offers a deep critique of contemporary food systems, but is susceptible to corporate co-optation that may reduce its transformative potential.

The rise of mainstream veganism in recent years could have a profound impact on various elements of the global economy. Typically, the increase in vegan consumption is primarily thought to have affected food-based products, but it can also be observed in numerous other markets, from clothing and medication, to electronics and construction. Veganuary, in particular, has foregrounded veganism in the mind of consumers, as corporations endeavour to exhibit their ‘green’ credentials by releasing various plant-based alternatives to their current product ranges. Products such as the ‘McPlant burger’ however only represent a narrow view of veganism, constructed by incumbent market forces. Such products reduce veganism’s concerns to a question of consumer choice, distracting from broader questions of capitalism’s exploitation of labour and the environment.     

Photo by LikeMeat on Unsplash

Far from simply adding Linda McCartney products to weekly shops and replacing meat in everyday food consumption, veganism as a political movement demands a more fundamental analysis of the ways our contemporary political economy is organised. This core feature of veganism – often-neglected in contemporary understandings of veganism – has itself been raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose special report identified a plant-based diet as necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In highlighting the relationship between meat consumption and deforestation, land use, soil degradation and human health, the IPCC acknowledged the politics of often de-politicised framings of veganism. 

We argue that political economy is essential for understanding the rise, role and transformative potential of veganism in the contemporary global economy. While it represents an underexplored case study through which to examine emergent supply and demand dynamics for both meat and plant-based products, the intellectual tradition of political economy allows for a further examination of the power relations embedded within systems of food production, questioning who really benefits from vegan commodities. Additionally, it may help unpack what veganism means for land ownership, extractivism in the Global South and the future of supply chains and global trade. It also has the capacity to help us better understand ‘animal labour’ and exploitation in capitalist production. 

Here, in particular, we argue that the growing popularity of plant-based and vegan products in corporate settings requires some careful thinking-through. On one hand, it improves the availability and accessibility of vegan products. It reduces the need for the culinary confidence and spare time to seek out entirely vegan ingredients and make them into a nutritious meal. This may incentivise an entirely new demographic of people – for example, those with large families and full-time working hours – to make easy swaps in their everyday lives. On the other hand, this corporate veganism or ‘plant-based capitalism’ may contain a range of catches that depoliticise veganism, failing to invoke critique of speciesism and the corporate food regime that gives rise to environmental degradation and labour exploitation in agricultural industries. 

This includes unsustainable agricultural practises such as indiscriminate pesticide usage that corrupt local water systems and damage the health of local communities, soil degradation, and water usage. While animal products are highly polluting and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, the air miles and carbon footprint necessary for year-round fruit and vegetable availability has generated fierce debate. Furthermore, with the development of meat-replacements and ‘vegan junk-food’, and rolling out of repurposed cheap ingredients such as cauliflower steaks flogged at a higher price or ‘green premium’, there is concern about the environmental impact of (often non-recyclable) plastic packaging needed to distribute new vegan products. Finally, consuming more corporatised vegan products, including simple fruit and vegetable ingredients, does not tackle the food regime’s structural reliance on and utilisation of poverty wages and abusive labour practices to keep buyer prices low and corporate profits high.

We have developed a novel conceptualisation of veganism as a consumption practice that falls into two key ‘catches’ – Catch 22 and Catch 23 – of ethical consumption. By Catch 22 we refer to the pitfalls and inefficacy of a consumer-based action framework for driving political and economic change within a capitalist system riddled by intersecting systems of exploitation. By tackling some issues, for example reducing demand for CO2 intensive products that rely on animal exploitation, vegan consumerism may inadvertently reproduce existing exploitative systems such as poor environmental practice and labour abuse in fruit and vegetable agri-business unless it is situated within a broader movement for systemic change. Ability to engage in such practice may also depend on individual’s capability to do so, shaped by their position within class and other intersecting oppressive structures.

So, if acting within a simple consumerist action framework will not achieve systemic change on its own, perhaps the solution is to act outside of the system itself. This might include growing one’s own food and adopting a lifestyle that is divorced from the systems of modern capitalist life. This is, however, something that very few people have the skills, land or time to do, particularly for the vast majority who rely on full-time waged income. Some engagement with the system itself is therefore necessary if we want to change it from the inside out. Yet, Catch 23 refers to the situation in which action for a sustainable and equitable society becomes interpreted by corporate actors as simply a new market. As alternative practice such as veganism becomes more widespread, it becomes susceptible to corporate capture, commodification and co-optation by the very actors who produce the system intended to change.
This is not to say that vegan consumerism is a useless and thankless task – on the contrary, there is some encouragement to be taken from veganism’s growing popularity. It is essential however to think through how and in what ways veganism’s environmental, social and ethical aims are diluted, and how they can be re-embedded in a framework of political action that considers local, sustainable and fair food production that centralises justice for the people, planet and animals whose interests are subservient to the profits of agri-business.

This blog is the fourth in the series ‘The Political Economy of Everyday Life’ by SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. You can access the full series here.