As the curtains of 2019 rapidly draw to a close, an array of autumn and winter festivals, traditions and rituals, are enjoyed by people across the country: Diwali, Christmas and Hanukkah to name a few.
As we witness the planning, preparation of, and participation in, these festivals, you may be excused for thinking that the UK has a high proportion of people, young and old, who have faith. And you would be right, but not necessarily in the sense of religious faith. Faith means to have trust or confidence in something or someone. While religious faith in Britain is on the decline, we are witnessing the rise of other ‘faiths’ that are drawing people in. From climate change activism to veganism, young people are attracted to, and choosing to place their trust in, the sprawling number of modern movements on offer.
So great is the growth of the vegan movement, for instance, that The Economist dubbed 2019 as ‘The Year of the Vegan’. In the US, a quarter of those aged between 25-34 state that they are vegan. In the UK last year, a report found there to be 542,000 vegans, of which almost half are aged 15-34.
Aside from the claimed health benefits, just what is driving so many young people to adhere to a vegan lifestyle? And what can this tell us, more broadly, on why the young are drawn to this type of new ‘faith’?
‘Earth, justice and a values-based way of life’
Dr Justine Huxley, a psychologist and writer, argues that: ‘[Young people] have a deep concern for the earth … justice and a values-based way of life.’ We seek to support causes that will reflect better on the wider whole, and action that will address these concerns. The vegan movement has found itself as one solution to an issue that has been bubbling up in the last decade: climate change.
Climate change should not be ignored. We are living with, and are now paying for, decades worth of lax attitudes to the environment. Within food production, the meat and dairy industries have been derided for their detrimental impact on the environment. Veganism claims to offer a solution to such environmental pressures by promoting more ethically-sourced plant-based products. The BBC reported that, after animal welfare, the environment was the key motivator for people to not eat meat. The pressure of climate change makes young people take action and seek a more eco-conscious way of living, and veganism offers a tangible guide to living in a environmentally pressured world.
As Justine Huxley states, young people seek causes that take a stand on justice and align with their values. As young people grow up, they start to question the world around them, and make sense of where their values and ethics fit in. Tim Bradford, founder of VegFestUK, one of the biggest vegan festivals in the world, points the rise of veganism to governmental promotion of five-a-day but also to millennials calling for a cultural change around justice for animals. Tim’s inclusion of government is interesting. It makes veganism appear as part of the the establishment as opposed to the fringe movement it has been hitherto, thus making it more appealing to those who are less radically minded but still socially and ethically aware. In regard to millennial justice seekers, however, he wants VegFest ‘to combine the feel-good factor, the fun and sociable atmosphere, with quite a strong moral and ethical standpoint’. Kip Andersen, the filmmaker of the Netflix documentary Cowspiracy, claimed: ‘it was only a matter of time before the truth about animal agriculture was revealed [and] now that it’s revealed, people just don’t want to be a part of that horrific industry’. People have often sought truth and justice in life; veganism is another avenue for young people to voice their concern for justice in the context of the modern world.
Creating a community
Faith has also been centred around a sense of community and togetherness with like-minded people. The number of vegan festivals and events springing up the length and breadth of the country, and people participating in them, is increasing year on year. Veganuary, an organisation which encourages people to go vegan for the month of January, has seen a 60 per cent increase since it began in 2014 in the number of people participating in the challenge. Last year, 168,000 participated of whom 60 per cent were under 35. From this, we could infer that social and group cohesion is one driving force for why Veganuary is so popular amongst the young. Jamie Kidd, founder of Cool Jerk Vegan Pies in Glasgow, says: ‘there’s a real sense of community — we all help each other out and share ideas’. He ends on: ‘the ultimate aim is to grow the vegan movement’. This ethos could be applied to so many faith-based movements. To grow the community, you spread the message and young people are, generally, receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things.
When it comes to what drives young people towards a faith, as explained it can be action driven, truth and justice seeking or community creation. The less seemingly admirable reason is peer- and social media pressure. Whether we admit it or not, we are highly influenced by what we see and hear. As young people’s sphere of influence is from those with whom they spend the most amount of time, namely their friends, it comes as no surprise that they majority of Veganuary participants were under 35. In addition, being glued to phones allows us to see, immediately, what’s hot and what’s not. From a cursory glance at Instagram, #vegan has 87,430,684 posts compared to #meat which has 9,663,978. And with so many celebrities, from Ariana Grande to Benedict Cumberbatch, endorsing a vegan diet, it undoubtedly has an influence on young people. Even David Attenborough, while not vegan, recently declared he eats little, if any, meat. Why? ‘I think subconsciously maybe it’s because of the state of the planet’ was his response. David’s motives are primarily action driven, but someone with such an influential standing will, of course, sway others to take a similar standpoint and embrace a vegetarian or vegan diet.
‘Identity, value and something to believe in’
While researching for this piece, I came across an article from The Guardian which explored how faith can give a fresh start to reformed gang members. It occurred to me that the motives for what drives people to veganism and what drives reformed gang members to religion are not wholly dissimilar. As one woman who was interviewed assessed: ‘It’s not about the church and God per se … it’s about helping to give […] identity, value and something to believe in. Believing in something brings accountability’. The same could be said with veganism and any other faith-based movement. Veganism is just one expression of humanity’s innate need to channel values towards causes which will add value and meaning to life. Whether it is action-driven, truth and justice-seeking, community creation or peer-pressure, or a combination of all four, humans are social beings. The need to feel part of a community which aligns with many young people’s values-driven lifestyle, ensures that faith and accountability remains at the heart of much of what they do.