Co-ops are responding to the rapid increase in the number of people following the vegan lifestyle by expanding their product range, imposing clearer labelling and certifying their items as free from animal testing. This World Vegan Day (1 November), Dominika Piasecka explores how co-ops support their vegan customers.
Most of us walk into a grocery store and grab whatever we want or need, without thinking twice about what’s in our trolley. But somewhere down the aisle, someone is carefully studying the package of every product before they buy it to ensure it contains no ingredients that harm animals, the environment or our own bodies. That person is very likely vegan.
The lack of clear labelling may slow down the vegan grocery shopping process but it has become much easier in the recent years, largely thanks to the efforts of ethically driven co-ops such as Unicorn Grocery or wholesalers Suma. The use of vegan and cruelty-free logos on packaging has now become more popular but it was the Co-op Group that laid the foundations among the supermarkets.
These seemingly minor changes can be very helpful, particularly to those new to veganism. And when looking at the latest figures, there are quite a few of them…
The fast-growing movement
Data released this year shows 542,000 people in Britain are now following a plant-based diet – a 360% rise in the last decade, making veganism one of Britain’s fastest growing social justice movements. There are twice as many vegetarians, bringing the total to 1.68 million people or 3.25% of the UK population.
To meet the demand, co-ops have been working to expand their offering of vegan-friendly products. Aoife McKernan, assistant diet and health manager for the Co-op Group, says the organisation has recognised the rise in veganism and is developing its product range to meet it.
“The Co-op is currently reviewing how it can expand its meat-free range across the store, especially in the ‘Food to Go’ and ‘Ready Meal’ categories,” she tells Co-operative News.
“This is a very exciting time for the Co-op’s product development team and an opportunity to be really innovative.
“To support the rise in the vegan diet, Co-op Food magazine offers ways to switch recipes to vegetarian/vegan as well as providing meat free recipes.”
There are at least 26 co-ops listed in the Co-operatives UK directory as having a connection with the lifestyle. From cafes and bakeries like the Screaming Carrot, to social centres and housing groups like S19, to restaurants and breweries like Bartleby’s – there are vegan-friendly co-ops all over the country.
Health-centred co-ops have sections on vegan eating, such as Co+op Stronger Together. Some use the word “vegan” to market their business to a wider audience but many forget the importance of scrupulous product labelling.
Sticking a label on it
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) published guidance in 2006 designed to improve food labelling for vegans and vegetarians, providing official criteria for the use of the terms.
“The term ‘vegan’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from, or with, the aid of animals or animal products (including products from living animals),” it said.
The Co-op Group has been a pioneer in terms of vegan labelling. It has created a vegan list of its own-brand products and even a vegan alcohol list (animal products such as marrow or fish oil may be used as part of the clearing process).
Animal rights group Animal Aid calls Co-op Food “the shining light as far as supermarkets are concerned” and its campaign manager Ben Martin adds: “While a number of other major retailers have begun to mark some of their vegan-friendly food and drink, the Co-op remains the only supermarket chain to label its cleaning and toiletry products.
“Animal Aid is currently urging other supermarkets to follow the Co-op’s example of clear and consistent labelling of own-brand vegan products with its ‘Mark It Vegan’ campaign.”
Vegan food labelling is used voluntarily in the industry and is often the company’s own interpretation of the lifestyle. Despite the term ‘suitable for vegans’ being used more widely on packaging, many vegan products don’t carry an appropriate label.
Down the official path
The sunflower-shaped vegan trademark (left) is the first internationally recognised standard for vegan-friendly products and services, created in 1990 by The Vegan Society and carried by over 22,000 products worldwide.
Each certified product undergoes a strict process of verification to ensure it contains no animal-derived ingredients, isn’t tested on animals and that the risk of cross-contamination from non-vegan sources is minimal.
“The price covers our administrative costs, and any money left over goes towards funding our charitable work,” spokesperson for the society, Jimmy Pierson, tells Co-operative News. “We’ve always been keen to keep the trademark affordable, especially for start-ups and young companies.”
He added the cost of certification varies per product and depends on the applying company’s turnover. The money raised is also used to do vegan outreach, offer advocacy for vegans in vulnerable situations and lobby Parliament.
The sunflower standard not only benefits vegan businesses – such as Suma Wholesalers or Essential Trading, co-ops which carry it on some of their items – but any company that produces vegan-friendly items. The Vegetarian Society carries a similar “approved” trademark (right) to assure customers the product is truly vegetarian.
Certifying a product may be costly and licences are only granted for 12 or 24 months. Putting the word “vegan” or “vegetarian” on packaging costs nothing but it doesn’t give customers a firm guarantee.
The leaping bunny for cruelty-free items
Veganism – apart from being a diet – also excludes wearing animal materials such as leather, suede, wool or fur; refuses to support establishments that use animals for entertainment such as zoos, aquaria or horse racing; and rejects products tested on animals, such as cosmetics and household products.
Cruelty Free International (CFI) runs the leaping bunny programme, which gives shoppers assurance that they are not contributing to the animal testing industry and recognises companies that have chosen not to test their products on animals in all stages of production. It is a voluntary pledge that is independently verified and renewed annually. Consumers can find ethical companies using a simple online search.
The Co-op Group again paved the way for other businesses by introducing the leaping bunny logo to all its own-brand toiletries in 1985 – long before it became fashionable for organisations to take a caring stance. This position was extended to its household products range in 1997.
It states: “The Co-operative is proud to have a long term relationship with CFI, having been the first UK supermarket to have our household products and ingredients certified as cruelty-free.”
It has also banned animal testing for its pet foods.
Upholding the co-op values
The ethical and equality driven philosophy behind co-operatives fits in with that behind veganism, according to some co-ops.
“We chose the road of being a co-operative as we thoroughly believe in the ethics of it; we encourage others to become part of a self-governing business where we promote and support each other,” says Karen Fozzard from the Vegan & Awesome Collective, which offers tattoos, piercing and jewellery.
“The philosophy behind the co-operative is one that sits well with all of us within the V & A and as all of our members are vegan, the ethical part is very dear to us as we want to promote all aspects of what the co-operative ethos is all about: caring about each other, the community and fair trade.”
Speaking to Co-operative News, she adds that non-vegan businesses could make it easier for vegan customers by using clearer labelling, as there are many hidden animal products. “Things have come a long way in a short time and manufacturers are making things easier than they used to, but there is still a long way to go.”
Companies willing to be open about their labelling practices can gain trust in customers’ eyes. Perhaps if all businesses did it the co-operative way, shopping would be as easy for vegans as it is for everyone else.