A Simple Reason Why Vegan Options Can Have Increased While Veganism Did Not



It's common knowledge in urban areas that the availability of vegan options has soared in the U.S. and around the world in recent years, and it's nearly equally common to think that veganism has become more common as well, but the data on this raises questions. Gallup has been estimating the number of vegans and vegetarians for years and has repeatedly found no change. At the same time, the number of vegan options is clearly increasing in supermarkets and restaurants. It's far from clear that Gallup is right, because other, sketchier statistics have some hint of the numbers of vegans increasing. I can't find the original data, but GlobalData apparently found a 600% increase in the number of people identifying as vegan, and there's a bunch of figures like this bouncing around online. This seems likely to be driven by the fact that in surveys, more people identify as vegan and vegetarian than actually are based on self-reported food choices, but Gallup’s trends (or any other) may be similarly inaccurate. So my take is that the number of vegans probably is going up very slightly, but not as rapidly as the food options.


How could vegan options be growing but not veganism? One answer is that people are reducing their meat consumption. While surveys do find many people claim this to be the case, per capita meat consumption in the U.S. is not abating, so this also seems unclear. I've only really ever heard one other explanation, which is that companies view vegan options as burnishing their ethical and environmental images. Vegan options, under this view, make buying anything from that company more attractive because the company looks more ethical.

I want to present another view, though, that I think makes sense with a lot of research and theory but is sufficiently outside the scope of what activists think about on a regular basis that it probably is not something those working on expanding animal-free foods think about: that the rise in vegan options is driven by the rise in smart phones.

Smart phones? Yes, smart phones—and apps like Yelp, Happy Cow, or even Google Maps. To introduce why, I'll recount how in January, Lucas and I were driving back from a trip to the beach when we decided we wanted the new Carls Jr. Beyond Burger. Lucas got on his phone and searched for a Carls Jr. nearby. There wasn't any, so we thought of other chains with vegan options, and we looked them up alongside Happy Cow to see what was closest. Ultimately I think we couldn't find a good option nearby and just ate when we arrived at our destination.

Now contrast this with what it would be like to be vegan on a road trip in, say, 2005. You might know of a few places with options, or you might not. If you did, then you could look out for them, but if you didn't see them from the highway, you wouldn't know they were there. You wouldn't be able to search for restaurants nearby and easily see their menu. Instead, you'd likely stop at a restaurant and hope for the best.

The effect of this is that if there's a carful of people now, or a group of friends meeting up, and one or more people are vegan, the group is much more likely to select a restaurant based on its vegan options in today's world. This makes it more profitable to have vegan options so you attract such parties—and again, this can attract the business of non-vegans with vegan friends (in line with Nassim Taleb's rule that "The Most Intolerant Wins"), so the number of vegan options should go up even though the number of vegans does not.

The basic picture here is on how communication affects markets, something that's been studied extensively in economics (for example, see work on fishermen and cell phones.) But it has nothing to do with animals or veganism at the end of the day, and it shows how it's possible for important aspects of problems to fall outside activists' normal scope of vision.

Comments

  1. Thanks Zach, an interesting idea! I've heard something like this before referred to as the 'veto effect', although that just referred to the idea that restaurants with zero vegan options would diminish, since a vegan in a group of non-vegans would veto going to restaurants with zero options.

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