The Rise of the Vegan Start-Up

Written by Emily Leeming
November 29, 2018

Businesses that make money while being environmentally and ethically responsible. Could it be that yesterday’s fantasy is today’s reality? It’s a tantalising thought. 2018 has delivered an influx of vegan start-ups, reshaping the traditional London food-scape. Underpinned by an ethical and environmental backbone and riding on the back of the ‘clean-eating’ wellness movement, these mission-led brands have a product to sell, and a story to tell. The entry of large and established food corporations into the vegan market has signaled veganism is on an upward trajectory, boosting the vegan food industry from fringe movement to the cusp of mainstream. For the vegan community this may have been a long time coming, and with the UK meat-free market estimated to grow from £559 million in 2016 to £658 million in 2021, there’s no sign of the vegan gold rush abating.

Going vegan

Veganism is the fastest growing lifestyle trend in the UK, with the number of vegans quadrupling between 2014 and 2018. According to the Vegan Society 2018 statistics, 1.16% of the UK population is vegan. That’s 600,000 people. But the real catalyst behind this upsurge in demand for vegan products is likely due to the more lenient descriptors de jour; plant-based, vegetarian, flexitarian and reducetarian (or meat-reducers). Nearly half of all consumers are willing or committed to reducing consumption of meat, and nearly a quarter of millennials consider themselves vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian. These less stringent choices are a stepping stone towards supporting the environment and ethical initiatives mandated by veganism, though for many they’re simply searching for convenient and nutrient-dense food options.

You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar

The pressure of being vegan, of cutting out all animal products altogether, can be an intimidating commitment. A 2017 Mintel survey found that 11% of the population have tried a vegan lifestyle at some point. The vegan community used to feel very black-and-white to outsiders – you were either in, or you were out. Now though, there’s a new mood in the air among the vegan and plant-based community, one that’s almost palpable. A feeling that everyone's trying their best, celebrating the small wins of the wider plant-based community from the vegetarians to the meat-reducers. By loosening the vegan dogma, a more expansive and inclusive community has been created, one that was missing before. 

Shifting perceptions

Vegans aren’t a homogeneous minority anymore. Social media has given veganism a vocal and visual platform to challenge the pallid vegan stereotype of yesteryear. No longer socks and sandals, but bodybuilders, vegan celebrity personas like Venus Williams and Lewis Hamilton, and glamorous wellness influencers. Millennials and Gen X have been instrumental in driving plant-based demand. They’re informed, socially conscious and idealistic. Many cite documentaries such as Cowspiracy as a turning point towards veganism. New scientific research has also compounded public awareness of the detrimental impact of the meat industry on the environment. The largest and most comprehensive study to date on the environmental impact of farming was undertaken by Oxford University in June, concluded that ‘avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on Earth’.

A steadily growing appreciation for the humble vegetable has in part been pushed to centre stage by the meteoric and enduring popularity of plant-centric celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The staunch carnivores who jeered at plates of ‘rabbit food’ are now elbowing their way, fork in hand, to the luscious roasted aubergine, drizzled in nutty tahini and jewelled with pomegranate.  London is now teeming with mouth-watering plant-based options – from the beetroot ‘bleeding’ meatless burger at Mildreds, soulful Mexican street food at The Spreadeagle, vegan pub grub at The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker and the elegant fennel frond-kissed chickpea panisse at Tredwells. There’s a slow comprehension that when plant food gets so good, it’s not a sacrifice. Annette from More Than Carrots, an online platform and soon-to-be app that rates non-vegetarian restaurants on their plant-based offerings, has noticed some particular trends. ‘We’ve been analysing veggie dishes on London menus for about two years now. We’re seeing that bigger chains and venues with larger menus are increasingly offering a variety of options to a vegetarian or even plant-based audience. It’s some of the smaller restaurants that struggle more, especially the ones with small menus. Regionally, there can be dramatic differences in plant-based offerings as well, even within different London neighbourhoods. Most restaurants which don’t have many veggie options yet are definitely thinking or even worrying about that.’

Can’t believe it’s not meat

Big companies that are diversifying their product range and moving into the vegan market are providing a gateway for vegan start-ups to move into conventional supermarkets. While some have questioned the ethics behind consumers supporting these larger and traditionally non-vegan companies, many see their big buck marketing campaigns playing an instrumental role in increasing customer awareness of plant-based lifestyles. Tesco recently launched its new plant-based range to 600 stores nationwide selling more than 2.5 million units in 20 weeks over double its sale projections, last year we saw dairy giant Danone look to invest up to $60 million in dairy-free products, and even McDonalds have trialled their own McVegan.

A slice of the vegan pie

Big companies that are diversifying their product range and moving into the vegan market are providing a gateway for vegan start-ups to move into conventional supermarkets. While some have questioned the ethics behind consumers supporting these larger and traditionally non-vegan companies, many see their big buck marketing campaigns playing an instrumental role in increasing customer awareness of plant-based lifestyles. Tesco recently launched its new plant-based range to 600 stores nationwide selling more than 2.5 million units in 20 weeks over double its sale projections, last year we saw dairy giant Danone look to invest up to $60 million in dairy-free products, and even McDonalds have trialled their own McVegan.

Upscaling vegan, and often artisan, businesses hasn’t been an easy path for many. Some vegan start-ups are struggling with business execution, if only passion alone was enough. The movement's entanglement with the ‘clean-eating’ trend hasn’t helped, with the costs of some ingredients still prohibitively high for those looking to launch their own brand, while also impeding lower-income consumers’ access to ready-made vegan products. The transition from often handmade products to larger production can be intimidating, and mistakes costly. There’s a drive to help these mission-led businesses thrive, with London Vegan festival Vevolution holding a vegan business boot camp in the coming year, and the Swedish company Kale United, currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, hoping to launch a multinational vegan business network. 

It’s not always easy for vegan food businesses

Upscaling vegan, and often artisan, businesses hasn’t been an easy path for many. Some vegan start-ups are struggling with business execution, if only passion alone was enough. The movement's entanglement with the ‘clean-eating’ trend hasn’t helped, with the costs of some ingredients still prohibitively high for those looking to launch their own brand, while also impeding lower-income consumers’ access to ready-made vegan products. The transition from often handmade products to larger production can be intimidating, and mistakes costly. There’s a drive to help these mission-led businesses thrive, with London Vegan festival Vevolution holding a vegan business boot camp in the coming year, and the Swedish company Kale United, currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, hoping to launch a multinational vegan business network. 

So 2018 was the year of the vegan

As public awareness and acceptance of vegan and plant-based alternatives grow, and the threat of climate change continues to dominate, it looks like this may not only be the year but the decade of the vegan. 

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