CW: ableism, eating disorders

Unless you’re one of those sensible people who boycotts social media, you’ve probably seen at least one post about Veganuary in the last week. Veganuary – that is to say, the online campaign which encourages people to follow a vegan diet for the month of January. Along with promoting animal welfare, the project also aims to improve human health. However, the insensitive way in which Veganuary NGO and its followers deliver dietary advice threatens to overshadow any positive role it might play in the climate movement.  In my opinion, Veganuary has become little more than a toxic endorsement of diet-culture. And this is why…

Decent people surely knows that it’s inappropriate to talk about New Year diet plans over the festive period. Your family probably doesn’t want to hear about weight goals or plant-based living – let alone be told that they should go on a diet. As a society, we’re coming to accept this, in line with a growing appreciation of self-nourishment and food-freedom. So why is it still acceptable to push veganism so assertively? Even if you’re doing it for the climate, the borderline insulting nature of Veganuary’s social media content has many of the same negative effects as other diet-talk.

An image of a Twitter post by Veganuary, reposted on Veganuary’s Instagram. It reads “when they still use dairy milk in 2021” with several red flag emojis.
An image of a Twitter post by Veganuary NGO, reposted on Veganuary’s Instagram. It reads “when they still use dairy milk in 2021” with several red flag emojis.

Promoters of Veganuary would do well to remember that a vegan diet isn’t accessible for all. Many people with chronic illnesses struggle to absorb nutrients from any food, let alone vegan products, and face so many dietary restrictions already that it would be unsafe to add another. Although Veganuary argues that it’s possible to receive adequate nutrition on a vegan diet, attempting to do so would make the lives of chronic illness sufferers much harder. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people whose doctors say that veganism would worsen their conditions to want a break from the ableist narratives of Veganuary.

Veganism is also unsuitable for lots in recovery from an eating disorder. In fact, paediatric eating disorder patients – who are often the most affected by social media – generally aren’t allowed to follow vegan or vegetarian diets while in treatment. Intimating that that they are somehow immoral for eating meat therefore causes significant problems in eating disorder clinics, as well as affecting the mental health of older patients recovering at home. 

In my opinion, Veganuary NGO could go a long way to rectifying this by posting a visible acknowledgement of those who cannot (medically) be vegan in all its media content. At the moment, however, the campaign seems more concerned with indiscriminately pushing full-scale veganism than giving any consideration for those who might be distressed it.

Whenever I make these arguments in company, someone usually tries to justify Veganuary’s methods with the need for climate action. In fact, several people have told me that global sustainability is more important than the health and free-will of individuals. Whether or not you agree with this though, it’s worth asking what Veganuary actually does for the climate…

The movement isn’t big enough to have a notable impact on industrial livestock farming. In fact, the businesses whose income was most affected by Veganuary 2021 were small family farms – ironically the most sustainable. And although the 2021 Campaign Report shows that more vegan food was produced as a result of the movement, there’s nothing to indicate that agricultural emissions actually decreased.

Given that the campaign is only one month long, we could hardly expect it to reverse climate change. But why bother running it at all then, in such a provocative yet ineffectual way? From my perspective, it would be more realistic to address agricultural climate issues by gradually downsizing the meat industry, investing in organic farms and changing prices to alter purchase trends.  Why can’t Veganuary advocate this, instead of distressing vulnerable people with its insensitive, guilt-tripping media?

It’s clear that a more moderate line must be taken if a reduction in livestock farming is really going to form a meaningful part of the climate movement. Wouldn’t the majority of people (who are medically safe to do so) rather be praised for gradually lowering their meat intake than shamed for drinking a glass of milk? If so, this renders the current narratives of Veganuary completely counterproductive.

So while there’s something to be said for revising industrial agricultural processes, using social media to influence people’s personal dietary decisions shouldn’t become a substitute for this. Therefore, I can only see Veganuary as a mishandled campaign which is currently doing more harm than good.

Illustration by Ben Beechener