Although the rise of veganism seems fairly recent, it has actually been around since the 1940’s. The movement started with Donald Watson, a member of The Vegetarian Society who gave up meat at a young age after witnessing a pig get slaughtered on his uncles farm. This urged him to look into other forms of animal exploitation and question the ethics of it. In 1944, Donald, his wife Dorothy and 4 others joined for a meeting to discuss the consumption of dairy and eggs. They then coined the word vegan to describe an individual who abstains from the exploitation of animals, and so the social movement began.
Watson began by publishing a newsletter called “The Vegan News” originally to only 25 subscribers. By educating this new community, The Vegan News eventually gained 100 subscribers at which time The Vegan Society was formed and veganism was defined as:
“ […] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” The Vegan Society.
Although Donald Watson disagreed with vegetarianism, he remained a member for The Vegetarian Society for life as he understood that for some people, going vegetarian is a vital step to take before going fully vegan.
Although The Vegan Societies main focus was on animals, late 1940's Britain made it difficult to ignore the human suffering that also occurred as a result of World War II. Because of this, the society was not only concerned with human’s individual responsibility to animals, but also the impacts that large scale animal exploitation had on society nationally.
Issues the newsletter produced throughout the 1940’s promoted veganism as a method for overcoming the famine and soil depletion caused by World War II, and while many families went without extensive animal products due to rationing, even vegetarianism was still held with suspicion and seen as radical. Concerns were raised over the safety of adopting a plant based diet which Watson contradicted by forming a health council to improve knowledge on nutrition and stating:
“Those who have adopted a Vegan diet and have found themselves still able to work hard, play hard, sleep hard, bear children, and meet life’s other commitments, are naturally intrigued when told by high authority that it cannot be done. How paralysing is the power of tradition!” Watson 1946
It wasn’t until over 50 years later that the vegan diet was pronounced safe and healthy for all stages of life by The British Dietetic Association.
Modern Day Veganism
By the time Watson died in 2005 there were over 250,000 vegans in Britain, but fast forward to 2019, the “Year of the Vegan” as predicted by The Economist and over 3.5 million people have adopted this lifestyle.The campaign, Veganuary was formed in 2014 and is more successful every year. This has had a huge impact on the accessibility of veganism by leading to an increase in vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants.
This movement will only continue growing due to the influences of social media enabling people to be exposed to social movements such as this where changing everyday lifestyle choices can be seen as a form of protest.