Hooded, heavy breathing and heavier recruitment – what Darth Vader attempted in 1983, Whole Foods shoppers attempt today.
Except, it’s not the Dark Side, but the Green Side of kale, arugula, and romaine.
With global warming on the rise, 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cows, and about 1 billion sheep and pigs all raised for food; consumers are set to save planet Earth with a vegan lightsaber.
It certainly feels like the age of the Vegan Enlightenment. Steak-obsessed dads know what a plant-based lifestyle is, while carnivores eat raw cow hearts at vegan festivals, while a man elsewhere resigns from his job after making anti-vegan jokes. Yes, that made headline news, and yes, this is the world we live in now.
So what is driving the divergence away from animal products and towards plant-based? And how are marketing leaders responding to the change? First, to understand the divergence, we must dive into the psychology of morality. Next, we will check in with marketing professionals who understand the drive behind plant-based consumer behavior and the resulting products.
The Psychology Behind The Divergence
We tend to separate our values from our own actions. Here are simple questions to prove this: Do you think animal torture is cruel? Do you eat factory-farmed meat?
The odds are most disagree with animal cruelty yet still eat meat. This psychological conflict between the preference for meat and the moral response to animal suffering is what psychologists call the meat paradox. In short, people don’t want animals to suffer but still like to eat meat anyway.
The paradox in the meat paradox is that moral nature holds meat-eaters at gunpoint with the question: How can I be a good person and still eat meat?
It works like this.
There are two general systems the brain utilizes for moral decision-making. The first system is emotional, quick, and intuitive. The second is rational, effortful, and explicit. The difference between the two is easily illustrated in the Classic Trolley Car Problem.
Imagine this scenario: Six people are tied to train tracks, and a train is headed towards them. You are standing on a bridge with one person in front of you. The only way to save the six people is by pushing the one person on the bridge who will fall on the tracks and, in turn, stop the train from killing the six tied to the tracks.
Your brain’s first system relies on its emotional center, the limbic structures. So the response hits quickly, reflecting your emotional reaction, telling you not to push the person because it’s just wrong.
Next, your brain’s second system is situated right above your eyes. Neuroscientists call this the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, popularly known as the CEO of your brain. Unlike your emotional center, your brain’s CEO constantly assesses the rationality behind your decisions and would compute that six lives are worth more than a single life, moving you to push the one person on the bridge ultimately.
In the case of veganism, acknowledging that you’re sparing the suffering of an animal should outweigh the temporary delight of eating a steak.
The two systems are in conflict when confronted with a moral question. The prize for the winner? Merely getting to answer the question…
Whichever system ultimately ‘wins,’ people innately strive for consistent decisions that align with general values held. People strive for consistency. At times, however, decisions still go rogue, and people behave inconsistently. When this happens, a special kind of mental distress is felt. Imagine how you would feel while eating ice cream during a healthy diet or smoking cigarettes while attempting to kick nicotine.
Psychologists call this hint of distress cognitive dissonance. More than a feeling of dissonance, it also comes with a bonus of psychic tension, which must be resolved. Just as people strive for consistency, people also strive to minimize dissonance by resolving it, whether consciously or subconsciously.
To cope with the dissonance, people may suppress the knowledge that animals can suffer. For instance, in a study, one group ate nuts, and the other ate beef. Researchers asked the beef group to consider the cow’s suffering. Unsurprisingly, they assessed the cow’s suffering lower than the nuts group.
So what’s the solution to the dissonance caused by the meat paradox? Either change behavior or change the beliefs. Either justify why people have to eat meat or turn vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian or whatever suits the moral compass, really.
Flexitarianism, it seems, is what suits the moral compass and resolves dissonance for consumers today. A flexitarian is a part-time vegan who lives a life minimizing (but not eliminating) animal products and maximizing plant-based products where and whenever possible.
From Dissonance to Distribution
The animal agriculture industry contributes around $132.8 billion to the US economy on its own. But the tides, as they say, are a-changing.
Gone are the days where “Dry January” (abstinence from alcohol) and “Stoptober” (abstinence from smoking) are the only months of the year that cultivate self-improvement. With 250,000 people participating in the “Veganuary” (abstinence from meat-based diets) movement in 2019, not only is self-improvement yearned for, but also compassion toward the animals on the plate.
Veganism is no longer practiced by a cult that’s powered by early morning yoga and avocado toasts. Vegans in the US increased by 600% from 2014 to 2017, more than the population of Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Houston combined.
When James Brown sang “This is a man’s world,” he had no idea the vegan world would be led by young women – 79% of them below the age of 35 to be precise. Perhaps “men made the cars,” but it’s indisputably the women driving us to a more sustainable world. Beyoncé was right: Girls run the world.
Instead of going full vegan, people today are practicing flexitarianism by introducing (and substituting) plant-based foods into their diets. Though the meat substitute market is relatively small, but expected to grow $2 billion from $4.65 billion in 5 years, making plant-based the fastest growing lifestyle movement in Europe and the US.
Plant-based meat substitute companies Beyond Meat and Meatless already produce low-cost, plant-based chicken wings, burgers, and sausages. Beyond meat has been so successful that it’s been listed on the stock market with post-IPO gains up by 734%.
You might assume the US coasts are driving the change. But, surprisingly, according to Rachel Tipograph, CEO of MikMak, the trend is not unique to the urban coasts of the US. “For plant-based foods, we are seeing strong conversion rates in the south of US, 40% consumer demand in the south, 33% in the west, 18% in the midwest. You may think it would be like red vs. blue, but the data shows otherwise,” says Tipograph.
Upstart brands such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are the poster children of the plant-based movement, but it is only the beginning, according to Anders McGillis of Jackman Reinvents. “This space is still nascent. Think about Chobani and Fage, who lead the charge for greek yogurt. But now, Danon’s Oyokos’ is the best-selling greek yogurt in the States.” says McGillis.
Look around the local grocery store, and it is easy to see retailers and CPG brands are investing more in the plant-based categories. Plant-based products have resulted in new pockets of growth in the food market.
America is converging on the next diet trend: plant-based foods. Just like fat-free, organic, keto, paleo, and other food trends of yesteryear, is ‘plant-based likely to be the next punchline slapped on food products? All signs point to a hard yes because America has seemingly decided plant-based foods equal healthy foods.
Choosing between animal or plant-based diet used to feel like a choice between the way of the Sith or the way of the Jedi. Luckily, consumers today can leave the dissonance behind and have both by choosing the flexitarian lifestyle. I’ll (avocado) toast to that!