If you work for a strictly vegan organisation, there are rules. Don’t wear leather. Don’t eat meat. Don’t, for god’s sake, eat non-vegan cheese at your desk. An ex-employee of Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who spoke under condition of anonymity, described the day he accidentally brought a goat’s cheese salad into its American office. “People’s reactions were overblown,” he said. Someone started coughing, then walked out. There wasn’t “a whole lot of compassion towards people who weren’t vegan”, he added. He was later fired for – he believes – a dietary lapse in the form of a secret chicken burrito inhaled in his car.
Everyone’s vegan now, or trying to be vegan, or wishing they were vegan. The movement is decades old, started in 1944 by a joinery teacher from Yorkshire, Donald Watson, who went on to found the Vegan Society. At a meeting with fellow “non-dairy vegetarians”, Watson considered various names for their new practice – “dairyban”, “vitan” and “benevore” were in the mix – before settling on “vegan”. For years it was a fringe movement, associated with extreme ethical living and animal rights, but in recent years, veganism has become increasingly mainstream, a desirable social identity as much as a statement of ethical intent.
In a survey of Veganuary participants last year, 39 per cent cited their health as the reason, only a little behind the 43 per cent who said it was down to their support of animal welfare and rights. Only 10 per cent cited the environment. If you’re not a vegan, the associated piety can drive people to distraction, as when the editor of Waitrose Food, William Sitwell, responded to a journalist’s idea of doing a series on veganism by suggesting “a series on killing vegans, one by one”. (He resigned shortly after the email leaked.) But beneath the cynicism, there’s plenty to celebrate – the rise of a practice that will reduce our current reliance on industrial-scale animal agriculture and, according to Oxford University researchers, one that represents the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on earth.
Many new vegans mention Netflix documentaries such as Cowspiracy as the triggers that made them change their diet. But veganism has also become attractive by dominating the feeds of healthy-eating influencers on Instagram and by its association with public figures from Benedict Cumberbatch to Ariana Grande who have proclaimed their plant-based diets. As a consequence, veganism is now a viable commercial proposition – confirmed by a raft of vegan cookbooks, the Gregg’s vegan sausage roll and the move by every self-respecting supermarket to stock vegan products. (Iceland’s No Bull Burger was such a success last summer they’ve now launched a range of 13 vegan substitutes, including No Porkies Sausages and No Chick Crispy Fillets.)
Whatever their reasoning, more and more people are turning vegan. Veganuary’s participants have doubled every year since the charity launched in 2014, reaching 250,000 this year. According to the Vegan Society, self-identifying vegans in the UK have quadrupled from 150,000 to 600,000 over the last four years.
Contemporary vegans span a wide spectrum. At one end you have the more recent mainstream converts for whom veganism is a lifestyle choice, and at the other there are those for whom veganism is closer to faith. Vegan activism ranges from small groups, such as the one who recently stormed a Brighton steakhouse and played recordings of animals being killed, to well-established international charities such as Peta, whose own repertoire of public actions has become ever more elaborate. In recent weeks, Peta staged a fake dog barbecue in Sydney (“Schoolchildren traumatised” ran a newspaper headline), put out an earnest plea for people to stop using animal idioms such as “bring home the bacon” and instead say things like “bring home the bagels” (“Peta gets slammed”); and suggested on a billboard in San Jose that true feminists shouldn’t eat eggs as they’re “a product of the abuse of females” (“Peta comes off crazy as a loon, again”).
Peta have been pulling such stunts for decades now, masters at attention-seeking, whether through their own efforts or by clambering on to any passing bandwagon. In the run-up to the 2016 election, when the world listened to the recording of Donald Trump describing how he felt able to grab women “by the pussy”, Peta responded to the scandal by imploring people to “grab a pussy(cat)” and adopt a cat from a shelter (“Peta sparks outrage”).
More recently, they piggy-backed on the media frenzy around the Gillette toxic masculinity advert by re-releasing an old video of men sporting oversized vegetables where their genitalia should be. At one point, a pretty girl gyrates against a man’s dangling corn on the cob in a sort of hallucinogenic nightmare of a music video. “Increase your sexual stamina,” said the tagline at the end. “Go vegan.” A Guardian columnist summed up the general response: “There’s one thing that really puts me off veganism: Peta.”
Peta, it seems, will do anything, literally anything – even commit some kind of public relations hara-kiri by turning itself into a byword for perplexing lunacy – to spread itself around the internet. But it wasn’t always so. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, my sister remembers buttonholing people on the streets of London for wearing fur. She was a teenager and Peta was cool – they launched their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign, recruited supermodels like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell (later fired for wearing fur again), and staged a music festival for 35,000 people in Washington DC. There was a sense of anti-establishment flair which seemed thrilling and rebellious. Now, when Peta’s bids for attention include an annual “UK’s hottest vegans” competition (won last year, in case you were wondering, by Cath, a vegan activist from the west Midlands, and Ciaran, a vegan pilot from Cheshire) that alluring edge seems to have gone a little adrift.
“There’s a method in all this seeming madness. Absolutely,” said Ingrid Newkirk, Peta’s founder and leader, on the phone one morning just after she’d been feeding the crows on her balcony. Newkirk has run the organisation from Norfolk, Virginia, for nearly four decades and is accustomed to the regular backlash against Peta’s antics. “We do take it on the chin and we do it deliberately. We don’t care. We’re not here to win a popularity contest personally, we’re here to forward a message and in that we succeed.”
Newkirk will be 70 this year, and shows no sign of slowing down. “She works 24/7,” one ex-Peta staffer told me. “I think she has a clone,” said another. She started Peta in 1980 after working as a government inspector for laboratories where animals were used in testing. Then she read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation and realised that gently trying to shift the norms of how people treat animals wasn’t getting the cause of animal rights very far. There was little use in “telling people they shouldn’t kick the dog”, she said, “when there is a massive underlying problem that we view animals as if they’re for us to use”. Her fundamental belief – that we are all animals, and that humans should claim no superiority to any fellow creature on earth – was coded into Peta’s statement of purpose: “Animals are not ours to experiment on, eat, wear, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way.”
Newkirk’s strategy at Peta has always been multifold. The organisation would do all the behind-the-scenes work – funding scientific research, lobbying companies and governments, undertaking undercover investigations into slaughterhouses and animal abuse – but that’s not what you would necessarily hear about.
“We would love it if we could just win this with discourse, with sensible, factual conversation,” said Newkirk. “But such things don’t fly in today’s media. It’s Kim Kardashian, it’s war, it’s money laundering, it’s politics and it’s almost no attention span. A Twitter world,” she said. “So we have to keep finding those ways that our serious, sad issue about the exploitation, torment and slaughter of other animals can make it through this barrage of news and titillation.”
Peta’s shock tactics are often the handiwork of Dan Mathews, senior vice president in the US, the “office celebrity”, as one ex-staffer put it. Mathews joined Peta back in 1985, having got involved in animal rights through the punk scene in LA. He was quick to realise, he told me, that it was “as important for us to be reaching people through entertainment sources as through news sources”. Through Mathews, Peta led the way in celebrity recruitment and wild stunts, many of which he executed himself. Some are the stuff of legend among Peta’s employees, like the time Mathews hired a priest’s costume and staged an anti-fur catwalk invasion during Milan fashion week holding a sign saying, “Thou shalt not kill”. (Audience members leapt to his defence when security guards wrestled him out, distressed at the sight of a priest being manhandled.) “We’re the provocateurs,” he told me. “If people want a conservative animal association that doesn’t make waves and doesn’t offend anybody, we’re not that group.”
Any organisation trying to claim its slice of airtime is in the same quandary. How do you make yourself heard above the noise? Last November, Peta invited the Dorset village of Wool to rename itself “Vegan Wool” (“Bah-d idea?” wondered Sky News). The letter, from UK Director Elisa Allen, made it on to Facebook and then nearly every national news outlet in the country. (“With a simple name change, your village can take a stand against cruelty and remind everyone that it’s easy to stay warm and be warm-hearted to sheep by choosing vegan wool and other animal-free material”, wrote Allen.) For Peta, it was a consciously daft way of gaining attention for their undercover investigation into UK shearing sheds that had revealed widespread abuse of sheep.
As is often the case with Peta’s undercover work, the shearing videos were too violent to be shown on television, so they had to find another way of getting the message out. The residents of Wool found Peta’s letter vaguely amusing, district councillor Laura Miller told me, until Peta admonished them for not following through with the campaign. “They wanted to show our small village, which never asked to have anything to do with it, in a bad light.”
Even for those within the animal rights movement, such tactics can prove challenging. Plenty of animal rights supporters and vegan activists despaired of Peta’s latest bid for attention. “People thought it was ridiculous and so it made headlines everywhere,” said Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society. “But what people are going to remember from that story is that vegans make unreasonable demands.” Leading scientist and animal rights author Jonathan Balcombe, who once worked at Peta and still collaborates with them, expressed similar misgivings about an equivalent campaign Peta ran in 1996 in the US when they invited the town of Fishkill to change its name: “I think it’s a way to make the movement look kooky,” he told me, “and it gives people an excuse to dismiss the animal rights movement as a bunch of crazies.”
Newkirk has little patience with such complaints. “Whoever’s in charge of public relations for Wool,” she said, “they really blew it.” Leaving aside the fact that a small Dorset village probably doesn’t have PR representation, Newkirk was happy to go back on the attack. “They were so defensive and so nasty, they actually gave another boost to the press, because here was a fight, and in the news you love a fight.” As for looking ridiculous: “It’s far worse to be ignored,” the UK director Elisa Allen told me.
This is Peta’s constant refrain. They don’t care what people think – a lack of vanity which is in some ways both noble and rare in a world where every organisation and most individuals have a keen sense of their image. But many people I spoke to in the vegan movement were mystified by such a stunt at a moment when veganism has never been more popular. Harvard PhD candidate Nina Gheihman, currently writing a book called Veganised about the transformation of veganism from a niche animal rights issue to a mainstream lifestyle choice, cites the role of “lifestyle advocates” in making veganism more widely accessible. If the NFL’s Tom Brady (who has attached his name to a vegan meal-kit company called Purple Carrot) can win six Superbowls and be a vegan, surely anyone can and everyone should.
Some purists might see the moral roots of veganism being lost in the celebrity-fuelled, Instagram-curated version of the movement, but most longtime vegans see the switch in perception of veganism from extreme philosophy to viable lifestyle as a clear win, which makes it even more perplexing that Peta would appear to want to push veganism back to the fringes.
Does it work? Success depends on how you measure it – according to their annual reviews, Peta’s members and supporters in the UK have steadily grown in recent years, from 660,000 in 2015 to 1.2m in 2018 (the definition of what constitutes a member or supporter is strikingly broad: anyone who has donated in the past two years, signed more than one petition or is actively engaged with Peta’s e-news). Their revenue from donations and legacies dropped from £4.6m in 2017 to £3.7m last year, but prior to that seemed to hover around the £3.5m mark.
In their own materials, however, Peta advertise their campaign and media triumphs over their bottom line – from persuading retailers to stop banning mohair and fashion designers to stop selling animal skin products to the number of Facebook views their posts received and the range of media outlets that covered Peta’s stories. But trickier to count is perception and reputation – how, in all those clicks, people actually felt about Peta, and how Peta’s messaging made them feel about the cause. “From a PR point of view it’s worked,” said one animal rights activist (working at a different organisation). “Even with the Wool fiasco, they still had all the key messages in there. But I worry that that tactic is just going to make people think vegans are silly, and the other side of the movement is successfully doing the opposite.”
To those who question their methods, Newkirk is bullish: “Most people are timid. They feel awkward, they feel tainted with this brush of silliness. And what I say to them is a) get over it, develop more of a spine for what you believe in, and b) if you’ve got a better idea, we’re all ears.” But another criticism that seems fairly common among Peta’s supporters is that the organisation’s ideas haven’t evolved a great deal over the last 39 years. They’re still quick to reach for a naked girl or blunt innuendo.
Another ex-staffer, who also chose to remain anonymous, recalled how the controversy over the misogynistic tone of some of Peta’s stunts – the repeated trope of women being depicted as meat, for example – blew up while she was there and she found herself in conflict with a fairly unyielding leadership on the issue. “I kind of believe we were setting back other issues to push another one forward.” If an organisation has only ever had one leader, “change is tough”, said the ex-staffer. But Newkirk’s reign is also what makes Peta unique. “It is the vision of one woman essentially,” she continued “They know exactly who they are, there’s no ambiguity, you know exactly what you’re working for. That’s rare.”
If you’ve been in the game for as long as Newkirk, criticism is unlikely to stick. She will offer up anything, even herself, for the cause. A few years ago, Newkirk wrote a public will in which she itemised how various parts of her dead body will be used as campaign props – her skin will be made into leather products to remind the world that human skin and animal skin are the same, her liver will be sent to France to campaign against the creation of foie gras, and so on. She told me she needed to update it: “I have body parts I haven’t mentioned in the will – I’m going to throw it open to the organisation to make suggestions which will be kinder than the ones I get on my Twitter account.”
Harvard Magazine article about Nina Gheihman’s research into veganism’s move into the mainstream
The Oxford University research, published in Science, on the environmental impact of giving up meat and dairy
The book that changed Ingrid Newkirk’s life: Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
Dan Mathews’s autobiography, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir, which charts his long and colourful career in animal rights activism
Ingrid Newkirk’s “Unique Will”