There’s been controversy in vegan circles recently over changes to the Vegan Society(VS). In late 2013 the organization underwent rebranding in order, we were told, to gear it up for its 70th anniversary later this year and to give it a fresher, more modern feel.
At the helm of these changes is CEO Jasmin de Boo, who took over last year. She had previously been in charge of Animals Count, now called the Animal Welfare Party. Despite being launched in 2006 in the hope it would transform the political landscape for animals, it was spectacularly unsuccessful and fought only one seat at the general election four years later, receiving a mere 149 votes and 0.3% of the vote.
Many members have been unhappy with the direction the Society has taken over the past few months, highlighting the Love Vegan campaign which has slogans like “You don’t have to be vegan to love vegan lipstick” and “You don’t have to be vegan to love vegan ice-cream”. Opponents say the abolitionist message is being watered down by the insinuation that it is ok to dip in and out of being vegan.
In her blog on the group’s website, de Boo responded to these allegations by saying: “We have never and nor will we ever campaign for so-called ‘part-time veganism’ as a permanent lifestyle, but only as part of an exciting journey towards 100% veganism.”
But its critics are accusing the Society of selling out, not only because of the partial vegan message but because it is also wholeheartedly embracing consumer and celebrity culture. In an article on the Huffington Post website called “Going vegan like Beyonce”, de Boo defended the singer’s choice to wear leather and fur by arguing that “Most ‘transitioning’ vegans will own and wear animal products until worn and no longer usable. The products will usually be replaced with vegan alternatives…In this sense Jay-Z and Beyonce are not unusual in wearing leather.”
In fact they were not “transitioning” at all, they were on the diet for 30 days because of its health and “spiritual” benefits. After that they reverted back to being omnivores. Therein lies the problem. Unlike in the past when there were fixed categories of omnivore, vegetarian and vegan, nowadays there are all sorts of dietary possibilities with “flexitarian” eating being all the rage. How does the VS respond to this changed landscape made possible by lifestyle capitalism and the explosion of the internet and social media?
For de Boo and others, the answer is clear: it should be embraced, otherwise the Society risks being left behind. She says: “Veganism was for a long time associated with the counter-culture and seen as “difficult” but now we are seeing it enter the mainstream much in the way vegetarianism did in the 1980s.” Clearly the way to make it less “difficult” – as she sees it – is to adopt a more flexible approach: “There are no rules and you are only answerable to your own conscience”.
But for a lot of people the idea that people who still wear leather, wool or even fur could call themselves “transitioning vegans”, raises a lot of problems. This is especially true for animal rights campaigners and critics of the new approach have highlighted the downgrading of animal suffering by placing it below other issues on the revamped website. de Boo now admits this was a mistake and says “some of the pages still need revising”.
One of the most important functions of the VS has always been to promote the availability of vegan products and to work for better labelling of them, and this has improved greatly over the years. But does that mean it should therefore be completely in thrall to consumerism? After all if veganism is going mainstream and mainstream society is obsessed with consumerism (for those who can still afford it, for the rest it is food banks and social ostracism), is veganism by extension no more than a capitalist lifestyle choice?
As the debate over the VS has raged on social media in recent weeks, the tone has become increasingly hostile. De Boo has been forced to concede the “need to make sure our communication is equally respectful” and “to ensure that those commenting on Facebook…do so in a respectful and friendly manner at all times.”
Now in another concession a special meeting has been called to try to assuage the opponents of the rebranding. This will take place tomorrow, 19th July, in London. If de Boo and others thought this would pacify their critics, however, they have failed. Already on Facebook they have been criticised for locating it in London (the VS is based in Birmingham and that would be much more central), for making it by invitation only and not allowing non-members to attend, and for the choice of facilitator.
Clearly whatever happens tomorrow, this is one dispute that is going to run and run.