Fleur Emery is a startup expert and the founder of online co-working space REALWORK.
‘When my sister and I started Grasshopper, our porridge-in-a-pot company, it was back in the days when independent food brands were few and far between in retail. We wanted our product to be organic because we cared about animal welfare standards and had read in a Mintel report that the demand for organic food was here to stay. I believe I have the absurd accolade of being the first person ever to have their flat’s 6ft x 12ft kitchen registered with the Soil Association as an organic manufacturing site. The inspector who examined the premises, Mr Wells, was quite confused to be there. (His previous job had been as a wine-gum tester in a sweet factory and he was dressed in tweed.)
We paid £700 to become licensed and did it using our savings before we even had a single retail customer because we believed in organic food so much. ‘No-one,’ I remember being told by an important food industry person standing on a stage, ‘is ever going to want food produced with chemicals again.’ The next year, in 2012, the organic market in the UK started shrinking fast and struggled to recover; it didn’t start properly growing again until well after Grasshopper wound down. Organic certification losing its pulling power wasn’t the only reason the business isn’t still going, of course, but it’s one of them. Should I have made a cheaper, non-organic product?
Maybe, but I never would, as I really like cows and think they should be able to walk around and eat grass.
Recently I’ve been working with a lot of vegan brands. It’s been interesting, because just as so many people in the food industry said that organic wasn’t going away, many of the same people, when faced with a vegan brand, would shake their heads slowly and say things like ‘It’ll never take off’. I have to hold my hands up and say that I was one of the doubters, but I have thoroughly eaten my words as I see the landscape of the food industry change in front of my eyes with meat disappearing from the aisles.
The root of the industry’s early reluctance to get behind vegan brands lies in the association with the grassroots animal-rights activism of the 1980s and 1990s, with its strong and sometimes anarchic voices. People just didn’t believe that this noisy fringe behaviour could ever enter the mainstream. That militancy never completely went away. Proof that vegan consumers still have a sting in their tail was offered in 2018 when the cereal company Rude Health, a contemporary of Grasshopper, published a post on social media saying that it was not against the consumption of cow’s milk. The backlash was instantaneous and powerful, with the hashtag #boycottrudehealth leading to a substantial drop in sales and a PR nightmare for the company.
Some people believe that the mistake Rude Health unwittingly made was marketing directly to the vegan community, including advertising regularly in their magazines and at vegan trade shows, therefore indicating that the brand was ‘one of them’ and triggering a sense of betrayal. It sent a tangible ripple through the food world and startups have taken note of what happened.
‘Sales driven by ethics and deeply held beliefs are making the difference between whether small producers survive the pandemic or not.’
Several vegan businesses have sought to avoid the issue by defining themselves as the less politically sensitive ‘plant-based’ – but what does that actually mean? Well, not much, especially where trading standards are concerned. The term has no official definition and use of the word ‘based’ gives any product with an animal-sourced ingredient in the mix a caveat that’s water-tight.
Getting a product accepted for certification by the Vegan Society makes my afternoon with Mr Wells tracking the origin of my organic raisins look like a walk in the park. The process is incredibly rigorous and covers every aspect of the supply chain. Cecily Mills, founder of vegan ice-cream company Coconuts Organic, recently helped me understand it, explaining that vegan certification required a supply chain free from animal cruelty. In her category that was particularly important since Thailand, one of the largest producers of coconuts, uses trained monkeys to harvest them. I googled it, then wished I hadn’t. Just this week the UK committed to monitor this farming practice after British supermarkets banned Thai coconut products in response to PETA and the Vegan Society. Cecily believes passionately that this certification is integral to her brand and I admire and identify with her commitment.
But the pandemic has brought another interesting twist in the surprising evolution of the vegan food market that, again, I failed to predict. As small producers supplying coffee shops, delis and hotels saw their sales fall away in front of their eyes when lockdown began, as the community aspect of veganism came into play online. Huge players like Ed Winters, otherwise known as vegan educator Earthling Ed, have been promoting struggling small producers. Ed has used his social media channels to rally the troops, triggering huge uplifts in sales. One vegan bakery I know that was on the verge of closing recorded a 500% increase in online orders following a mention on his newsletter and others have reported similar. Vevolution, the vegan events and media platform, has also been showing the love with its engaged audience and jumping in to support small brands.
When you see that, historically, vegans have been often ridiculed and vilified, it’s understandable that they should support each other so actively in times of crisis. Sales driven by ethics and deeply held beliefs are making the difference between whether small producers survive the pandemic or not. It really is make or break. For the ‘plant-based’ brands who weren’t ready to commit, the future is less secure without the benefit of this dynamic and ever-evolving community. Is it too late to call yourself vegan?’
Read more from Fleur at fleuremery.com and @fleuremery.
Read more comment pieces from Courier columnists.