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The rise of veganism


As Veganuary comes to an end, History and Politics Alumni, Mary Worrall, blogs about the impact of veganism in recent years.

In my final year of studying history and politics at the University of Wolverhampton, I was given the chance to research a topic that was both interesting and significant to me. Throughout my degree, I always leaned towards studying British social history. When given the opportunity to choose an important charity or campaign group to do a project on, I knew I wanted to focus on animal rights as it is something that is close to my heart. This is especially significant during ‘Veganuary’, which was when I myself first decided to stop eating meat in 2017, as a New Year’s resolution.

It didn’t take me long to settle on the Vegan Society and its founder, Donald Watson. Founded in 1944 as a split from the pre-existing Vegetarian Society, its aims were defined by this initial group of vegans as; promoting veganism, providing information, and campaigning for animal rights, mainly ‘farm’ animals. In its early years, the target audience of the charity was existing vegans or those interested in veganism. Watson was not necessarily interested in conversion.

Whilst society did not invent the concept of veganism, it did coin the term in its first meeting. Prior to this, the nickname ‘Lacto-vegetarians’ had been used to describe those who avoided meat but still consumed dairy products. The ‘dairy debate’, as it was called at the time, was a hotly debated topic in the plant-based community (for some, it still is today), and the Vegetarian Society’s newsletter had asked for opinions on the debate. Watson’s response, later published in the newsletter, stated his belief that dairy consumers have a partial responsibility over the industry, so ‘Lacto-vegetarians’ especially should still hold guilt over harming animals through dairy production.

Whilst the achievements of the Vegan Society itself can be debated; it is impossible to deny the rise of veganism as a whole in the past few years. This is especially apparent in the month of January – nicknamed ‘Veganuary’, where people sign up to go vegan for the entire month. This is an extremely impactful campaign as thousands sign up every year, with 2022 seeing a record 629,351 sign-ups. At the same time, thousands also partake in ‘meat-free Mondays’. Although it is only one day a week, reducing your meat intake even this much can make a positive impact.

Last year, Tesco closed over 300 meat and fish counters in stores due to a change in their customers’ habits, and in 2022 Aldi reported a 500% rise in vegan food sales during January and Tesco a 300% increase in vegan meats. It’s hard to deny the impact of veganism, even in your everyday supermarkets, and it can all be traced back to Donald Watson.

The Vegan Society today is probably most known for the Vegan Trademark, which is a green symbol found on certified vegan products since 1990, ranging from cosmetics, clothing, food, etc. This was how I first found out about the charity, long before it became something I could research at university. Searching for plant-based items can be so difficult without this little certification on the back of products.

It's clear that the legacy of Donald Watson lives on all across the UK. In 2019, to mark the Vegan Society’s 75th Anniversary, a blue plaque was revealed at his former school in West Yorkshire in his honour. His charity was an obvious choice for the project in my final year. I believe that choosing a plant-based diet is much more than just that. It’s doing all that you can to prevent animal suffering in your day-to-day life. I’m sure my friends could tell you how often I’m promoting a meat-free diet to them!

For me, it will always be about the animals, as it was for Donald Watson and so many others who were influenced by his ideas and by his writings in his vegan magazine over the years. It means a lot to me. And so, it also meant a lot to having the opportunity to research the history of veganism as part of my studies.

Find out more about studying History and Politics at the University of Wolverhampton.

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