This blog post includes data from research into seven UK-based reduction and vegan campaigns, drawing on the largest sample of meat reducers, pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans in any research project to date (n=1,587). Research was conducted for my PhD in Social Policy at the University of Kent, using a mixed-methods, longitudinal approach. 

Through participating in a campaign, individuals may not only change their consumption of animal food products (AFPs) but their perspective on consumption itself. While a vegan mindshift through a concern for animals may most readily facilitate this process through the re-categorization of AFPs as non-foods, practicing new styles of eating may support the formation of unconscious habits and, ultimately, a new understanding of the eating process.

For participants who are lacking in motivation or are heavily reliant on culturally normative omnivorous practices, the first step in their transition may be a recognition that a meat-free or vegan meal can be sufficient, healthy, and tasty. Here, the use of veg*n substitutes can be helpful in maintaining meal-time norms and make the transition process feel less dramatic.

However, the continued reliance on pre-formed, omnivorous habits and norms may inhibit the transition from reflective to reflexive consumption. Each time reducers plan and consume a veg*n meal they may then rely on conscious reflection and thus view these occurrences as time-intensive, complicated, and/or expensive. While meat-centric meals may remain easy and habitual, veg*n meals may require a recipe or the purchasing of pre-made meals or substitutes.

To establish a new behavior, one ultimately needs to practice it. [1] It may be that, for those psychologically and physically able and ready, the participation in a month-long veg*n challenge can better support the establishment and maintenance of new ways of eating and new dietary norms. By necessitating veg*n habit formation through repeated and regular practicing of veg*nism, participants may not only be more likely to find veg*nism to be easy, they may have more opportunities to explore new foods and types of meals.

Abstainers commonly described having an expanded palette and developing skills to integrate reflexive veg*n habits into their daily lifestyle. Near-vegan BL5 explained: “I’ve become really organized and I cook twice a week in batches so I sometimes freeze stuff and I’m set for the week.”

The reducer may struggle between that which is highly routinized and, therefore, less reliant on time and energy and that which is highly rational and dependent upon conscious effort and planning. [2] The (however) partial maintenance of familiar dietary habits and norms may make it easy to fall back on old habits when pressed for time, as with meat reducer BL1: “Sometimes if I’m ever in a hurry I’ll buy a packet of cheap supermarket meat.”

Veg*n diets may be more readily adopted when consumers embrace and formulate new conceptions of food and the necessary components of a proper meal. Veg*n and pescatarian diets can be reimagined as not simply the absence of “proper” foods (e.g. “proper cheese” – MA5 and MA3) to be substituted with lesser-than foods that are commonly seen as less valuable, less tasty, or less substantial. Rather than viewing these diets as “limiting yourself,” seeing them as “opening yourself to a whole new way of eating” (vegan MA5) may minimize feelings of sacrifice and promote positive dietary experiences. Those holding onto omnivorous dietary norms may continue to perceive meals as necessitating meat (or a meat-like element), the so-called “meat of the dish.”  Instead, where new routines are formed, they can legitimize and provide relief from dietary reflexivity. [3] Ultimately, the reflexive reducer may be more likely than the reflective reducer to achieve lasting sustainable reductions.

Potential strategies for promoting veg*n dietary norms:

  • Learn more about participants’ habits to provide tailored information. For instance, if participants do not cook, it may be helpful to focus on providing easy recipes and information about where to find ready-made meals. For those with limited resources (e.g. time for those with kids or finances for those with a low budget), inexpensive and easy recipes that the whole family can enjoy may be best. Other considerations: location (rural/urban), dietary habits of friends and family, or willingness to try new foods.
  • Address beliefs about a “proper meal” and encourage new types of meals that do not require a central meat-type element. By directly discussing cultural dietary norms in campaigns, participants may be able to become aware of their pre-formed assumptions. For instance, in the UK this could include highlighting the idea of “meat and two veg” and showing examples of other types of meals (e.g. a curry or a stir-fry).
  • Ideas of the adequacy of a meal are likely to be linked to conceptions about protein and other nutrients. Providing information about how easy it is to get enough protein may help overcome concerns that veg*n meals are inadequate or require careful preparation to have sufficient nutrients.
  • By hosting month-long abstention challenges, participants will be compelled to practice veg*nism and be more likely to adopt veg*n norms and habits.

Over the upcoming weeks I’ll be sharing more of my findings and what this means for campaigners, researchers, and policy makers. So make sure to click “follow” and stay tuned!

Works cited:

[1] Kollmuss, A. and Agyeman, J. (2002). Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro- environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8:239–260.
[2] Ilmonen, K. (2001). Sociology, Consumption and Routine. In: Gronow, J. and Warde, A. eds. Ordinary Consumption. London: Routledge, pp. 9–23.
[3] Halkier, B. (2001). Routinisation or Reflexivity? Consumers and Normative Claims for Environmental Consideration. In: Gronow, J. and Warde, A. eds. Ordinary Consumption: Studies in Consumption and Markets. 1st ed. London: Routledge, pp. 25–44.

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