Some activists seem to love internecine debates about language, and fights over the word “vegan” seem particularly addictive. Nearly every vegan has an opinion regarding the definition and use of the word, but their fundamental goals often differ. Given the disparity of underlying motivations, it’s not surprising that there is much disagreement.
For many, “vegan” is an end in and of itself. These activists feel very strongly about using that particular word – “vegan” – and glorifying veganism.
But other activists are more concerned with the real-world consequences of the words they use. They don’t want to use a specific word just because they like it, or because it captures their particular worldview. Rather, consequentialist activists choose language that influences the actions of those who currently eat animals. To them, words only matter insofar as they actually reduce suffering.
If you are in the latter camp, there are a number of studies on influencing optimal messaging that you may find very useful in your advocacy efforts. For example, there is much to learn from Faunalytics’ large study of former vegetarians and vegans – which showed that more than four out of every five people who go veg eventually revert back to eating animals. A key strategic takeaway from this survey is that people who change rapidly are less likely to maintain that change, and those who take incremental steps are more likely to maintain it.
Another key lesson: Some former vegetarians pointed to their inability to live up to demands for “purity” from certain portions of the veg community as a factor in their slide back to a non-veg diet. The angry, judgmental attitude that is unfortunately often associated with veganism has driven away even highly motivated, dedicated individuals, as we can see in this article.
Marketing research done in 2015 at the University of Arizona’s Eller Business School also provides a number of insights. Four investigative teams of MBA students were each tasked with studying a different facet of the issue. In their research, all four teams found that the general public views “veganism” as impossible, and “vegans” as annoying (not to put too fine a point on the findings). The group that focused on restaurant and grocery store research found that non-vegetarians are less likely to order a dish or buy a product if it is labeled “vegan,” compared to the same product labeled in a non-veg-specific way (e.g., “vegan burger” vs. “black bean burger”).
We also have a number of recent data points, as new companies enter the marketplace and existing companies move into this space. What these firms have in common is a desire to reach new non-veg individuals, rather than appealing to current vegans (a market so small that it is within the margin of error). For these companies, non-vegetarians are their path to profits and success – and the more they succeed in having new people buy their products, the fewer animals will suffer and die.
This article discusses the trend, and its lead graphic – a sign at Target – shows the conclusion reached by profit-motivated companies seeking to reach non-veg audiences. Their marketing research shows that “plant-based” is the phrase that will reach new people.
A new article in Forbes magazine explicitly addresses the debate about language. Of course, there are still those who are primarily and personally concerned with trying to alter the common perception of the word “vegan.” But the major up-and-coming companies, such as Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat, which are seeking to reach new people right now – as well as the existing multinational corporations moving into this space – have all clearly chosen “plant-based” as the way forward.
I understand, and have written about, how inviting and even intoxicating it is to worry about words and defend definitions. It feels great to be part of an elite club, and ego is one of the most powerful drives, spawning the most amazing rationalizations. But if we care more about animals than ideology, and if we want to have the biggest real-world impact we possibly can, the first step is to set aside our egos and use the most inclusive and persuasive language possible.