The Effects of Ethical Consumerism on UK Supermarkets and Supply Chains

With vegans making up nearly 2% of the UK population, and 16% of food products launched in the UK within the last year being vegan, it’s clear to see that the meat-free revolution is here to stay. These changing consumption trends are having widespread impacts on the product lines of major multinational corporations, on the global prices of agricultural commodities, and on international supply chains.

Veganism, vegetarianism, as well as shorter-term ethically motivated diet commitments- such as ‘Veganuary’ and ‘flexitarianism’ demonstrate a growing popular culture interest in what was previously considered to be a niche and marginal dietary decision. With this in mind it’s fascinating to consider how the meatless market is reshaping the UK supermarket and the food industry as a whole. This article will examine the impact of these vegan trends on the British supermarket industry, as well as emerging vegan and vegetarian brands shaping the British food-scape in 2019.

The Vegan Trend in Action

The past five years have brought increasing environmental consciousness into many elements of life in the UK life, with the food market being a focal point. Paired with this, increasing awareness of healthy living, and the popularity of organic food and cruelty-free cosmetics have pointed to the upwards spiral in the vegan and vegetarian trends we are currently witnessing. Although vegans still remain a relatively small percentage of the UK’s population, it appears all consumers are increasingly interested in, and aware of these ethical factors, as ¼ UK consumers understand veganism to be an ethical lifestyle choice. In light of this, British supermarkets are under pressure to cater for this expanded variety of food ethics

Evidence of this can be seen in supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s who dedicated shop-floor space to vegan pop up stalls. Brands such as Holland and Barrett are capitalizing on their long-standing high-street image as a sustainable health-food store, and Iceland are praised by the vegan community due to their variety of vegan-friendly food stock.

Fast-growing supermarket chain Aldi had been viewed less favourably by vegan-activist groups, with limited commitment to stocking vegan and vegetarian foods. This has lead to the expansion of Aldi’s vegan range into a more comprehensive “I Am Vegan” brand, in an attempt to cater for vegan consumers. This said, Aldi’s blunder over unethically sourced kangaroo meat, which was identified as problematic by the vegan pressure group, Viva! demonstrates that despite being in the top 5 British supermarkets, Aldi are perhaps lagging behind in their stocking of ethically and sustainably sourced food goods.

The Brands To Watch

Interestingly when studying the food industry, it has not been the sales of raw fruits and vegetables that has increased in line with the vegan and vegetarian boom. Instead, there is an increasing market for chilled meat substitutes, and dairy alternatives, enter: Alpro, Oatly, Quorn, and Halo Top. These brands are just a few of the vegan buzz-word brands which are enjoying market popularity over the recent years, and thus are on the shelves of every grocer going.

The success of Alpro’s dairy-free alternatives has made them into the fastest growing brand in the British grocery market. Meanwhile Quorn similarly are the leading brand in the chilled meat-free alternatives, enjoying 36% of the market share. Brands such as Oatley are also boasting successes, with sales of £18 million in the UK alone in 2018 (an 89% increase on 2017 figures). Multinational, established brands such as Nestlé have also announced plans to launch competing meat-free products, setting the scene for increased market competition in the meat-substitute market. It’s not just superstores that are under pressure to stock such brands, smaller corner stores, and supermarket concessions are buying into these brands in order to better cater for vegan consumers.

The Ethical and Sustainable Costs

While much has been made of the positive impact of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles attention has been drawn to some of the less positive consequences; the ways in which veganism can undermine ethical and sustainable causes due to the impact of demand within a globalised economy. These issues are forming a critical narrative which forces supermarkets and food providers into considering not just what vegan lines they have, but their strategies for ethical sourcing, and food transportation.

The vegan food industry has drawn attention to ‘food miles’ as popular and trendy vegan and vegetarian ingredients can often be exotic food goods such as goji berries, jackfruits, and coconut milk which require extensive transportation in order to get them onto the shelves of British supermarkets; thus clocking up a sizable carbon footprint on the way. While many supermarkets such as Tesco and Waitrose have pledged to lower their carbon emissions, this aim may clash with the consumer demand for vegan goods, leading to a cross road in ethical, and profitable priorities.

Furthermore, the global market for such exotic vegan and vegetarian goods is also putting pressure on local producers; causing prices to rocket. This has caused prices of local produce to rocket unaffordable for local populations who may depend on them. For example, Mexico is struggling to supply and export avocados to the global food market, leaving local consumers in a position where price per kilo for avocados now equates to minimum daily wage. From an ethical point of view therefore it is important for Western food franchises to resist domination of local markets. Consumer and legislative scrutinization may in future prohibit such practise, but in the meantime it seems as through the British vegan trend is retaining popularity and profit; it’s up to the food industry to ethically cater for such demands.