Veganism as a food and lifestyle choice has been moving in from the fringe for some time, attracting greater numbers of consumers based on its purported health, ethical, and environmental benefits. However a more critical analysis of the dynamics of a globalizing more mainstream veganism, highlights problems that could challenge its common claims of ethicality and responsibility.

Much has been made of the positives of reducing dependence on animals and meat in the human food chain. Arguments have been made for the contribution of methane output from livestock to climate change. The ethics and sustainability of industrialized global trade in animals for meat have been scrutinized. And of course, the health and wellness consequences of a low or no meat diet, have become a growing motivation for greater uptake of vegetarian and to its greatest extension, vegan lifestyles.

However, this increasing popularization of veganism and vegan-friendly products has started to draw attention to some less positive consequences, the ways in which veganism is now undermining ethical and sustainable causes due to the impact of demand within a globalized economy. These issues are becoming part of a critical narrative that puts consumer goods actors in the position of needing to consider their strategies for vegan lines, as consumers become more aware of the downsides and that ends do not justify the means.

Vegan demand for example has started to draw attention for clocking up greater ‘food miles’, as popular vegan ingredients are sourced on a global basis. For example, Canada is now the leading producer and exporter of lentils globally; goji berries are sourced from Asia, particularly China, while blueberries are a major US export. This global supply chain stands at odds with the sustainable argument for local produce.

This is also putting pressure on the local markets where such products are indigenous, leading to local staple prices to rocket. Indeed demand is forcing some of the largest national producers of foodstuffs intrinsic to vegan menus, to consider importation of those foods to supply their own domestic markets. Prices of this local produce have risen unaffordably for the local populations who may depend on them. For example, Mexico has struggled to keep up with demand for avocados for export, even though it supplies 45% of avocados globally. This led to it to consider importing in an attempt to stabilize a situation where price per kilo had reached the minimum daily wage.

Such ethical and sustainable issues undermine the moral arguments for veganism, and wider-spread consumer appreciation of these circumstances could lead to a push-back on vegan options from less committed, but “responsible” consumers, and also leave vegans with a dilemma about the consequences of their choices.

Brands and retailers could find themselves increasingly in the position of needing to make their vegan menus reflective of the same ethical and sustainable values that they like to promote more generally. This could lead to changes in sourcing more local, more certifiably responsible relationships with exporters. It could also open the door for non-vegan foods to stage a fight-back, highlighting their relative responsibility and the emerging cracks in the vegan ethical case.