The New Year starts with Veganuary
You can make an omelette without breaking eggs
Veganuary take us inside their creative campaigning, the lifecycle of an activist, and why so many people are unscrambling resolutions for a better planet
How would you feel if someone hurled a massive lump of bloody steak at you and yelled, “Catch!”?
If Veganuary’s first ever TV advert from 2020 is anything to go by – featuring the reactions of volunteers on the receiving end of either a catapulted piece of meat or a vegetable – you’d be grossed out.
Vegan activist Toni Vernelli is the international head of communications and marketing at Veganuary, an organisation that encourages people to try a vegan diet for the month of January, and hopefully beyond. Toni had just arrived on the scene when the meat-flinging ad was being brought to life, along with a creative agency in Germany.
“They didn’t know what was going to happen at all,” Toni remembers of the filming. The meat, of course, was fake, but extremely fleshy and grizzly looking.
“What we were trying to get was that their reaction when someone threw meat at them was to go “Eugh!” and push it away. No one wanted to grab this big, bloody chunk of wet, gross meat.”
Recipients of a head of broccoli or a perfectly-bowled squash however, were delighted. The tagline: “Trust your instinct”.
“I thought that was so clever, because we do know that most people deep down don’t feel good about killing animals,” she says. “They don’t want to think about that part of meat production. If they think too deeply about it, it will put them off.”
Most people deep down don’t feel good about killing animals.
Veganuary is a vegan campaigning organisation with a difference. Toni explains that when co-founders Matthew Glover and Jane Land started Veganuary back in 2014, they knew there were already lots of animal groups showing people why they should be vegan. The cruelty, environmental and health information were out in the wild. But no one was focussing on “how”.
“Lots of those other groups do their own vegan starter kits or their own pledges, but it’s always associated with the gory stuff and the hard hitting campaigns,” Toni says.
Veganuary instead was not about converting people, but being the friendly, positive face of vegan activism.
“Our philosophy is ‘don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good’. Because we know that for most people, they’re going to slip up, they’re going to get into the cheese cravings, they’re going to have the odd chocolate bar, they’re going to go round to their nan’s house and feel guilty saying, ‘I’m not eating that dinner you just made me.’”
The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be… Veganuary
Much like Stoptober or Movember, Veganuary has co-opted our calendars with a catchy name that’s recognised around the world. It’s been splashed across newspapers, promoted in supermarket aisles, and endorsed by big-name celebrities. So, just how has the campaign taken such a firm grip in less than a decade?
Toni thinks the founders did a great job with the name. It’s undeniably quirky and catchy. But even more vital to their success, was the strong relationships they built with brands and retailers – made possible due to Veganuary’s positive vibes. Hard-hitting campaigns are important too, but maybe less palatable for the big wigs at Tesco.
In January, purses are usually on the emptier side. For restaurants in particular, which are traditionally fairly empty in the first month of the year, Veganuary makes for an interesting marketing opportunity and draws people in, Toni explains. Supermarkets have something new to promote for the New Year. Whether they’re a multinational dripping with gold or an independent start-up where the whole family is roped in, ultimately all brands are trying to make money. Veganuary offers that chance.
The campaigns have been gripping. From ‘Houston, we have a solution!’ billboards at COP26 in Glasgow to a Bigfoot cinema advert voiced by Babe “That’ll do, Pig” legend James Cromwell. And Veganuary has yet more supporting famous faces.
The absolutely fabulous British actor Joanna Lumley joined last year’s campaign, saying: “I’m in awe of every single person taking part for the climate, our rivers and oceans, forests and wild places, animals and people. You’re all angels.”
Primate expert Jane Goodall, comedian Ricky Gervais, and Brazilian superstar Xuxa are just a handful of the other huge names cheering on Veganuary. And how about Beatles legend Paul McCartney?
Beyond the creative ways that the team has raised awareness around Veganuary, it’s also having an impact. Toni describes a research project they commissioned based on people who took on Veganuary in 2019, where the evidence showed a dramatic decline in the amount of meat and dairy products that people bought in the six months following their Veganuary trial. They could conclusively say that Veganuary leads to long-term diet change.
January 2023 marks the tenth Veganuary. To celebrate, a documentary looks back over the campaign’s rise, featuring several celebrity alumni who tried the challenge and stayed vegan afterwards, including Chris Packham and Deborah Meaden.
“Our theme for this year’s campaign is hope through action,” Toni says. “We know a lot of people right now will be feeling quite despondent and down about the state of the world. So we really want to emphasise that we do all have the power to make a difference. Our dietary choices do have positive impacts, so if you’re hoping for a better world in 2023, doing Veganuary is a great place to start.”
The circle of activist life
This was not the first time I’d met Toni. Some years ago, in a dingy basement in London, she was showcasing the iAnimal virtual reality campaign from Animal Equality, which she worked for at the time. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was plugged into a headset and was watching a video inside a chicken barn and slaughterhouse, from a chicken’s-eye-view. It was absolutely devastating. I’d been teetering on the edge of vegetarianism, and it pushed me firmly towards the tofu – I quite literally lost the taste for meat. Filming a documentary with the original Save group in Toronto, which holds vigils outside animal slaughterhouses, sealed my commitment just a few weeks later. I have no doubt that there’s a vegan in-waiting within me too, or as the makers of environmental documentary Cowspiracy said to me once, “Ah. You’re a pre-gan.”
Intrigued about Toni’s transition from hard-hitting vegan activism that forces people to confront the reality of the meat and dairy industries, to a supportive and gentle campaign, I ask what kind of activism she thinks works best. I should probably mention that although iAnimal made for traumatic watching (I don’t say that lightly), Toni was lovely. She prepared me for the experience and exuded kindness and warmth. Her compassion for animals clearly extends to humans.
“When I first started I worked for PETA, and I did very confrontational protests – road blockade events… getting arrested constantly,” she begins.
After years of intensive direct action, she moved to the investigation side of vegan activism to expose the reality of what was happening. Now, in this third season of her campaigning career, she has settled into the positive side of the movement – showing people how they can make a change. This, she says, is the least stressful type of campaigning.
“I do think there’s a natural lifespan to that really intense, confrontational type of campaigning, and certainly to the investigative work,” she says. “Confrontational campaigning is stressful. You get the adrenaline rush, but there’s so much stress. I was so angry all of the time, when I was doing that kind of campaigning, and that doesn’t win people over. They go, ‘Oh, I’ll become a vegan and be angry and miserable all the time.’”
Watching people’s reactions to her investigative work was rewarding, but having to go undercover and capture footage on farms takes its toll, she says.
Toni’s activist life came from an interesting source. Raised in Canada, she was the daughter of a butcher.
“I remember the smell more than anything,” she says. “There would just be the whole skinned slabs of pigs or cows back there.”
Carcasses never upset her much, but whole animals did; dead deer or moose sometimes frequented the basement, when her dad took on home butchery for friends. And then one day, she took a trip to a friend’s farm and spent the weekend carrying a baby lamb with a birth defect around in her arms. When she finally understood what was going to happen to that lamb, she didn’t want to eat meat anymore. But, being the 1970s in a northern steel town in Canada where there was little awareness about vegetarian diets, she was told she didn’t have a choice. A nutrition course at secondary school finally opened her eyes to new possibilities.
“I remember going, ‘So you can live without eating meat?’ And the teacher was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been a vegetarian since the ‘60s!’” she says. And that was that.
At that point she didn’t know much about milk and egg production, but a trip to a punk record shop in Toronto soon enlightened her. She came home armed with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) magazines and anti-fur stickers. She made a decision. When she finished school she’d move to Vancouver, where the streets are paved with soya milk (not literally), and become vegan. And she did. She also joined her first animal rights group.
Let’s go Veganuary, let’s go!
The Veganuary website is a treasure trove of top tips and recipes – and a celebrity cookbook. If anyone can resist a peanut butter and raspberry breakfast jar, or buffalo wings n waffles, I don’t want to know about it. On an egg-conserving note, could there be better news than vegan tofu benedict or vegan frittata?
Toni has some sage advice too. It starts with simply giving Veganuary your best shot.
“There is no such thing as the vegan police. No one’s going to be sniffing around your fridge,” she says. “If you slip up, that just means you’re human. Carry on. Don’t use it as an excuse to give up, because every vegan meal that you have is good for the planet, good for animals and good for your health.”
Every vegan meal that you have is good for the planet, good for animals and good for your health.
For the love of animals
Alongside Veganuary’s top-notch campaign we take a dip into five other creative movements that are sparking change in the world of animal rights.
Supported by Harry Potter actress and activist Evanna Lynch, this 360 virtual reality video immerses viewers in the reality of meat and dairy production. Viewing is not for the faint-hearted. But it does change those hearts that are brave enough to not turn away.
Cowspiracy – one of the most famous animal rights activism documentaries, with a devastating message about the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption. The film comes from Animals United Movement (AUM), which has since made What the Health (a look at the impact of dairy on our bodies, and some draw-dropping conspiracies) and their newest film Seaspiracy (it’s like Cowspiracy… but fishier).
This clever app tots up your impact for every day you skip eating meat. You’ll see how many cows, chickens and fish you’ve saved, how much land you’ve protected, the kilometres of CO2 you’ve reduced and the extra lifespan you’ve given yourself. You don’t have to go meat-free every day, but once you see the impact it’s hard not to. And – the clue’s in the name – the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, Chris Darwin, is the concept’s co-founder. Could this be the next step in human evolution?
The reason the bovine face of this app is so happy, is because she represents a network of vegan-friendly eateries and a like-minded community. Wherever you venture, you can browse the map to find restaurants and shops with plant-based food on the menu. Cheers to that! There’s also a blog for even happier cows.
HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene is a coffee table book with a difference. This hard-hitting collection of work from 40 award-winning photojournalists explores the human relationship with the non-human animal world, and it is very often ugly. There’s a forward by Joaquin Phoenix and it’s worth looking up one of the photographers, Jo-Anne McArthur, who has released other incredible books like We Animal. These photos are the kind that stick with you – they’ll make people question their own relationships with our fellow living beings.
Now for some:
Vegan egg substitutes
What if we told you it’s possible to enjoy all your favourite dishes without eggs? Thanks to these vegan egg substitutes recommended by Veganuary, you can.
Veganuary’s famous faces
Actor Evanna Lynch, AKA Luna Lovegood: “I’ve loved Veganuary’s work for a long time because I know, having been a vegetarian who was intimidated by veganism, that so many people just won’t start because they think it’s too hard and that they’re going to fail.”
Hollywood superstar Joaquin Phoenix: “If you look at the climate crisis or the violence of our food system and feel helpless, thinking ‘I wish there was something I could do’– you can. Right now. Sign up to try vegan this January.”
British comedy genius Sara Pascoe: “I decided that I was going to do 100 days being vegan, and I was going to write it up and see how I felt. But within a week I felt so much better in my body that it then became ‘oh I am definitely going to do this forever.”
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
Veganuary’s creative campaigning is making real changes. It’s helping people explore vegan eating, with a supportive hand to guide them. There’s a place for so many different types of animal rights activism – as our round-up shows – and creative approaches get people thinking in new ways. As Toni says, “We do all have the power to make a difference.”
If you want to join the writer in further embracing tofu-eating wokeratihood, sign up to Veganuary.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.