Tips for getting your letters to the editor published

Writing letters to news outlets can be a great investment of an activist’s time – at least if they get published. We sometimes waste hours in discussing things on facebook for a dozen people, while we could have spent the same amount of time on a letter that gets read by tens or hundreds of thousands of people. Here are some tips on how to write letters that get published.


  • Everything starts with an idea that you want to convey. In our case, it will usually be something related to animal suffering or going vegan. Often that will not be concrete enough. Make sure you know the exact point that you want to make, and make it clearly. For instance, I just wrote a piece about how new health recommendations in my country may lead to more chickens and fish being eaten, which equals more animal suffering.
  • You need to be able to write well. Your writing has to be crisp, and clear, without mistakes. If you’re not a good writer, you can either leave the task to someone else, or get help. Editors will only want to spend a certain amount of time on your text – if they read it at all.
  • Be concise: try to put as many ideas as possible in as few words as possible. Editors prefer concise, compact articles.
  • Being too emotional or outraged is often not convincing. One possible guideline to go by is that for every emotional argument you use, you join it by two factual ones.
  • Don’t exaggerate your facts and don’t present veganism as the panacea for all the world’s problems (vegalomania).
  • If you respond to another person, watch out for anger, blaming and shaming. Everyone’s human, dealing with their limited view of the world. Writing sarcastically and making fun of someone can be entertaining, but it usually doesn’t make allies. Imagine how the person you are writing about will feel when they read your text. Will they be offended? Angry? Or will they have reason to feel sympathetic towards you? Your objective here may not always be the same.
  • Decide which audience you are writing for. Do you want vegans to cheer what you are writing? Or do you want to take non-vegans along? Those might be two different pieces.
  • Remember YANYA, or “you are not your audience”. Don’t just think about the point you want to make. Think also about how your audience will react to what you write. Put yourself in their shoes. Be audience-centric.
  • Read your text again after a while, or give it to someone else (maybe a non vegan) to read.

Other tips

  • React to something that is currently happening in the news. Writing on a topic out of the blue can work too, but it has a much lower chance of succeeding. Also, it’s good to see if that particular outlet has already published one or more pieces on the topic. Feel free to float an idea by an editor and ask if they are interested in a piece by you.
  • Everything will be much easier once you have built a relationship with the opinion editor. This happens after they know you write well and can be trusted to submit pieces that have a consistent quality. They may even start contacting you after awhile and ask for a piece
  • Obviously, your chances of getting published will be higher if you have some kind of relevant identity or experience, rather than just being one random vegan or activist. It’s good to be able to describe that identity in one sentence. One description I presently use is Tobias Leenaert, author of How to Create a Vegan World.
  •  One rule to remember is that you want to minimize the work for the editor. So, the more finished and customized to the outlet’s default format your work is, the better. Check for the length and format that the outlet usually publishes (when writing for an online medium, length is less important than in the case of print).
  • Personally, I find online publishing more interesting than print. Online lasts and is searchable forever, while print is only good for one or two days. Among the online outlets, it’s more interesting to write for outlets that that won’t put the piece behind a paywall.
  • Practice writing: keep a blog, write about many topics to gain experience and knowledge. Keep a database with interesting ideas, studies and references to be used when needed. Also, practice fast writing: sometimes you have a very short deadline for an article.

Got other tips? Let me know in the comments…

Beware of vegan dogma

Suppose I asked you to write an online dating profile for yourself. And suppose I told you that you could only use one word to describe what you desire in a significant other. What quality would you first and foremost be looking for?

Mine would be: open-mindedness. It’s the quality that guarantees you can talk and have good conversations no matter what. It’s the quality that helps guarantee empathy, because you’re open to listen to everything and consider all kinds of things. It’s the quality that assures, in short, growth.

The opposite of being open-minded, is being dogmatic. Being dogmatic is basically the attitude of not questioning things. One is not necessarily dogmatic across the board, about all kind of topics imaginable, but one can definitely be dogmatic about certain topics.

If you are a vegan today, then chances are big that, like me, you spent quite a bit of your life accepting certain dogma concerning the consumption of animals. You were in a certain box. I call this box the box of carnism (Melanie Joy’s term).carnism

Being inside the box of carnism – being subject to the ideology of carnism, made you accept all kinds of dogmatic ideas. Like the ideas that eating animal products is natural, normal and necessary.

Then, if you were like me after some time, the light went on. You pushed the box open and jumped out as a vegan (maybe first a vegetarian, but that’s okay).carnism box

Now, the thing is that I realized – only after many years of being vegan – that to a certain extent, I had ended up in another box. The vegan box.vegan box 1Just like I had been dogmatically accepting all kinds of beliefs before, I was doing the same now. I was thinking of veganism in the only way that one is allowed to think about it: honoring the decade-old definition. I would point out that as soon as one made one exception, one isn’t a vegan. I repeated the eternal mantra that it wasn’t about welfare but about rights (and I used welfare and welfarist as dirty words – when did they ever turn into that?). And so on…

So, a couple of years ago, I largely got out of that box. And I began questioning everything once more. I believe I am largely coming to the same conclusions as when I was in the vegan box, but here’s the thing. It is the very act of questioning that is important. It is that that will guard us against fundamentalism. It is that which will keep us open-minded. It is that that will keep us away from dogma. Dogma is what prevents us from improving.

And the need for questioning, for introspection, for self awareness is not over. It is possible that I will end up in yet another box. It could be called… the box of openmindedness, the anti-dogmatic box, the pragmatic box. We can make boxes, ideologies, out of everything.

One box is better than another, but it is better not to be in any box at all and to keep our thinking free.

You can check the presentation on open-mindedness, rationality, empathy and positivity that I recently gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg:

See also: ten vegan things I recently changed my mind about

What’s it like to be a meat eater? (on “confirmation bias cheering”)

We believe that by being vegan, we’re doing a good thing. We’d like others to do the same good thing. But we can’t force others to do as we do. There is no way to make the consumption of animal products illegal at this point, and even if some president or dictator would abolish animal consumption in some country, the time is not ripe for that and soon such a law would be reversed again.

So one of the things we need to do (apart from creating alternatives!) is to change hearts and minds. To do that, we need to understand others, know where they come from, listen to them, and know what attracts them and turns them off. In other words, we have to be able to take their perspective. I have called this idea YANYA before, or You Are Not Your Audience.

When a tiny percentage of the population goes against the tide of the other 98%, it must be that this minority somehow has more motivation. We are, to some extent, different from other people.

One problem is that what many vegans like to hear is not what the general audience likes or needs to hear. Vegans who serve their non-vegan audiences the truth “straight up” (in a video, interview or whatnot) often get cheered by other vegans. This is what I would call Confirmation Bias Cheering (when you suffer from confirmation bias, it means that you favor information that confirms your own beliefs and opinions). You cheer because your own opinion gets confirmed, exactly without taking into account the reaction of the people you actually, ideally want to reach.

confirmation bias
how confirmation bias works

Let me give you some examples to make this concrete. Recently a video did the rounds of an activist who said something that many or most of us want to say – at least sometimes – to meat eaters: yes, we are judging you, because your choices cause so much suffering, and you could easily choose something else. Line by line, many vegans’ initial response is: “exactly!” “spot on!” And we give thumbs up, and we comment, and we share…

The same goes for memes that ridicule non-vegans and their often crazily irrational reactions. We may find them funny and recognizable. That’s why we often share them and make fun of non-vegans’ reactions together with our fellow vegans. And having some fun is… fun. And necessary. But it’s good to consider the effect of memes like these on non-vegans.

I once did a prime-time TV debate with the president of the farmer’s union in Belgium. What I said was, I think, balanced, gentle, and reasonable. But what I heard from some vegans was: “why didn’t you just say it like it is? Why didn’t you tell him that raising animals for food is criminal and that eating meat is a crime?” I can imagine I would have received cheers from vegans, but I would have alienated my general audience – the people I actually want to reach.

Likewise, I recently did a couple of interviews, based on the recent publication on my book, with mainstream media in Belgium and the Netherlands. I know that the overwhelming majority of the readers of these interviews will be non-vegans. I mentioned how fundamentalism does exist in the vegan movement, but that it expresses itself not in terms of behavior (being vegan is not fundamentalist in itself) but possibly in our communication and the way we relate to other people. I said that we can either communicate compassionately, or like an asshole. The editor in chief of one newspaper made a clickbait headline out of that: “To radical vegans I say: don’t be an asshole”.

Now here again, vegans may not like that statements like these may contribute to the image of a divided movement with some internal differences. But there’s a way to think differently about this, from the audience’s perspective: any non-vegan who ever had to deal with an annoying, aggressive vegan (you know they are out there) may very well find it a relief to read that not all vegans agree with that approach.

To some vegans, I seem too tolerant, too pragmatic, too forgiving. And yet today, as a reaction to the same interview, in which I plead for a more tolerant approach, I received a letter from a non-vegan, from which I can derive that, in spite of my plea for tolerance and open-mindedness, I still come across as intolerant and dogmatic. And no, her letter was not at all unreasonable or unkind.

Another thing: to make veganism seem less rigid and dogmatic, I sometimes describe the exceptions I make. Mentioning that I don’t examine wine and bread when out of the house, makes me a target for some vegans who think I shouldn’t even call myself a vegan. Yet to non-vegans (again, the people we actually want to reach) these exceptions don’t even count as exceptions, and may just confirm how strict we really are.

Expressing your opinions with your audience in mind has nothing to do with pandering to their views and desires. Some vegans will say: yes, of course non-vegans like a gentle, incremental approach, because you give them a way out, an excuse. Of course they like it when you don’t tell them they are under a moral obligation to go vegan (I’m not a fan of “moral baselines”).

But it’s not about telling people what they want to hear because it is comfortable. It’s about telling them what is useful for them to hear so that some change will happen (in their attitude and/or behavior). If that change is not yet the full monty, then so be it.

So one important message here is: if you read something by a vegan in a mainstream channel and you don’t like it, think first about how the larger audience would react to this. Would they get as angry as you are? Or would it actually be something that brings them closer, even if it’s not conforming to your ideal? The reactions that matter are not those from vegans, but those from the non-vegan audience. If vegans could keep this in mind, vegan spokespeople wouldn’t be held back by the potential backlash by some vegans, and could more freely speak in a way that appeals to the widest possible audience.

You may disagree with all of this, and you may believe that speaking your truth, the way you feel it, always and forever, in every circumstance, is the most important thing for you. But if we take seriously the often heard creed “it’s not about us, it’s about the animals”, then I believe we should consider voicing our truth not as the priority, but the real-world effect we have with our words.


Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese

Did you hear about the fire in the vegan cheese company? The cheese didn’t melt!
So goes a running joke about vegan cheeses. A few years ago, the Vancouver based company Daiya Foods changed all that, and was the first to bring to market a cheese that actually, seriously melted.

But then this week came… the Daiya Drama! Daiya foods announced they were being acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka. Otsuka is not just a big pharmaceutical company (to many that is bad enough in itself) but it also, as all pharmaceutical companies still do, tests on animals. The result is that many vegans are angry, state they will boycott Daiya, consider Daiya products no longer vegan, and call out the Daiya people for being hypocrites that are just in it for the money.daiya


I’ve been combing through some Facebook threads, trying to get a feel of the arguments used against Daiya and its acquisitition, and in this post I’ll take a quick look at why deals like these are not bad. I’ll also give some ideas about better communication in circumstances like these. It goes without saying that I dislike animal testing as much as the next vegan, and would love to have it be a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Facts first. What do we have to go by?

In a video that they posted on their Facebook page recently, the two Daiya founders say that they always wanted Daiya to be a global leader in the plant-based food scene. For that, they realized, they needed a partner. In Otsuka, they found a company “whose fundamental values align well with Daiya”. The partnership, according to the founders in the video “will ultimately enable more consumers around the world to enjoy a plant-based lifestyle”. Daiya will remain an independent subsidiary. Otsuka does indeed do animal testing – you can check this statement on their website.

So, Daiya will keep operating autonomously, but is now owned by a pharmaceutical company that does a certain amount of animal testing of a certain kind. That’s what we know. How bad is that?

Very bad, if many of the comments are anything to go by, or if we look at the petition signed by over four thousand people. The sense that I get is that people feel betrayed. The petition talks about “a stunning blow to the people who thought Daiya’s values did not include animal testing.” Apparently, to Daiya’s present detractors, it seems that while they thought Daiya was in it for all the right reasons, they now feel that Daiya sold out, for reasons of greed. I’ll get back to this.

What can be achieved by a boycott?
A boycott is usually meant to exert pressure on a company. Sometimes, boycotts work and companies or governments do change under pressure (particularly if there’s a lot of media attention involved). Often, however, a boycott is symbolic: there is no realistic expectation that a company will actually change, but boycotting the company gives the boycotters a clearer conscience. I think in this case, there is little to no chance that a small group of vegans could help reverse the sale. Nor is there much chance that the Daiya founders can exert pressure on Otsuka to stop testing on animals – if they want to keep bringing new drugs to the market, it’s something they are obligated to do, unfortunately.

Moreover, even if the Daiya sale could be reversed, or if Daiya would be bought by an unproblematic company, as far as I can see, this would not result in any more or less animals being killed or tested on. Daiya’s hands, in the eyes of some, might be less dirty, but would Otsuka do any less animal testing? Not that I can see. The idea that Daiya sales would actually contribute to animal suffering seems far-fetched to me.

Benefits of big business buy-ins
The Daiya founders’ stated motivation is that they hope Otsuka’s acquisition of Daiya will enable the company to reach more people and help them to follow a plant-based lifestyle. Let’s just take this claim at face value, for now. Is it absurd? Of course, not.
I’ve written before about the advantages of big business getting into plant-based (see Beyond Meat and Tyson and here), and I’ll only summarize them briefly here. Big companies have a lot more means at their disposal than small companies. They have bigger and wider distribution channels and a bigger customer base. With their money, they can obviously increase advertising and expose more and more people to Daiya, or any vegan product. They can boost R&D; so, new products can be developed and old ones can be made even better. Last but not least: once a company stands to win from the sales of plant-based products, it is logical to assume that their antagonism to veganism/plant-based alternatives will decrease.

Playing the definition game

A part of the vegan community jealously guards the definition of vegan products and veganism (the initiator of the petition is called “keeping veganism vegan”). Are Daiya products still vegan?  To me, this is a boring question, but let’s see. It is possible to define “vegan” so strictly that we rule out almost anything. It is reasonable to say that a requirement for a product to be vegan is that it doesn’t contain any animal ingredients. I’m comfortable enough with this, as a definition.

A step further is to say that no animals may have been harmed in the making of a product. This still makes sense, but the question here is: :how far do you go? In this case, the parent company performs some obligatory animal experiments (note that we don’t know which kind of experiments – not all experiments cause the same kind of suffering, obviously). Does this exclude Daiya products from being vegan? And if one boycotts Daiya for this reason, shouldn’t one also boycott any business that sells vegan products but also profits to some extent from some kind of animal (ab)use? Non-vegan supermarkets would, it seems to me, be out of the question, under this definition. As would any non-vegan restaurant. And, forget about consuming any great vegan product from a company that also produces anything non-vegan.

Just to be sure, I wrote to Vegan Action, which certifies Daiya and other many products as vegan, to ask them their opinion. This is the answer I received:

“We do indeed still consider Daiya vegan.  The product line/brand is all vegan – does not contain any animal products and is not tested on animals.  That’s the criteria we use.  If we didn’t allow companies that are owned by parent companies to apply for and use the Certified Vegan Logo, there wouldn’t be any Certified Vegan products!”

Pushing it that far seems irrational and impractical. What’s going on here, I think, is a case of disillusionment and thwarted expectations: people expected Daiya to be a vegan company (rightly or wrongly). We thought they were one of us, and now we feel betrayed. And, we double down on betrayers! They are black sheep. While most of us have no qualms shopping in a non-vegan supermarket, we may not shop in a once vegan supermarket that introduced animal products all of a sudden. Likewise, we may dislike an ex-vegan much more than someone who was never vegan at all. Thwarted expectations. Human, but not entirely rational.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the communication on this issue. Most people (I’m not exempting myself) suck at communication. Vegans and others who are part of and very passionate about an ideology may be even worse than average. We get very, very sure of ourselves. That sometimes prevents us from thinking. Or, it makes us believe that we have all the answers already, that we’re the good guys and the other ones have made mistakes. And, that they can be chastised for those mistakes. It’s the problem with the world, kind of.

Here are a few things we can do to communicate better:

Practise slow opinion
Social media push us to react very quickly. Before we respond, we could ask ourselves questions, try to take the perspective of the other party, wonder if we have all the information that we need. We can think deeper and longer about things than we usually do. Fast opinion often doesn’t create any meaningful addition to a discussion, and only adds to anger and hate. We have enough of that, and if we want to change the way we interact with others, we need to step on the brakes, take a breath, and think again. I’ve written more on slow opinion here.

Remember that none of us is a mind-reader
So many people in their comments stated that the Daiya founders sold their company because they were greedy. Presumably these vegans are mind-readers, for how else could they claim to know the founders’ true intentions behind the sale? If we doubt their stated intentions, are we sure enough that we are right, so that we can utter these kind of horrible accusations?

Moreover, say the Daiya founders’ motivation to sell the company is financial. Do we know what they plan to do with the money? Maybe they’ll use it to invest in another great plant based company? Maybe they want to make significant donations? The thing is, we can’t know.

In general, there is a lot of cynicism going around about the corporate world (politicians and celebrities are another easy target of that kind of cynicism). Especially if our opinion might be wrong, it is very delicate to call others traitors or sell-outs or whatever. The Daiya founders are people too, as are all the Daiya staff. It is undoubtedly not pleasant to read all the sh#t that people write about them. And, it’s not motivating, but rather it might alienate them from the vegan movement. A good rule on social media is not to write something about someone that you wouldn’t say to them face to face. So often, we forget about the humans behind the social media conversations.

I think the fact that big companies want to acquire plant-based companies is a terrific sign. I do believe a partnership with a big company can indeed help Daiya to reach more people. Is this the founders’ real motivation? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Is this an ideal partnership? Probably not, but it’s not an ideal world either. This is what success will look like. It will not proceed along a road of purity, but it may be a bit messy and mixed at times. We’d better get used to it.

I’m not saying companies should be beyond reproach just because they offer great vegan products. As consumers, we’re definitely allowed to remain critical. Maybe Otsuka and Daiya will prove me naive at some point in the future. Till then, I’ll try to be open and rational rather than cynical, and I’ll try to have some faith in people, including those in the corporate world.

Want to read more about how our movement can deal with the business world? Check out my new book How to Create a Vegan World.

Ten communication tips for new (and other) vegans

It is important to advocate for what we believe in. It is valuable to influence other people so that they follow our example. Sometimes, however, we can be just a bit *too* passionate in our drive to get more people on board. Especially newly minted vegans are sometimes prone to advocate 24/7, often in ways that are not entirely productive. Here are a few tips for avoiding what is sometimes called “new veganitis” and to be good at vegan advocacy from the get-go!
vegan advocacy
1. Remain open-minded
You stopped eating animal products, but please don’t stop thinking. Our movement hasn’t figured everything out. We can still improve, get more knowledgeable, more wise, and more effective. Know that being vegan is not an end-point, and that you can and should and will grow and evolve further.2. Don’t let your emotions blind you
I get it: you discovered the truth about what happens to animals, stopped eating animal products, and are now pretty angry that all this abuse is just continuing. How can others not conclude what you are concluding? If you get impatient with them, realize that your own conversion was probably not overnight: what finally prompted you to go vegan was probably just the last incident or piece of information in a whole series over many years.

3. Be modest
You just got here. Though it’s no guarantee that they have grown wiser or better, longer time vegans have more experience with navigating a non-vegan world and talking to people about it. Maybe they’ve become softer and more nuanced. But don’t judge them right away: that doesn’t  make them traitors.

4. Remember that veganism is not an end in itself
Being vegan is about reducing suffering. Always keep that underlying goal in mind. Judge what you do not by the answer to “is it vegan?” but by “does this reduce suffering?”

5. Seek out like-minded people…
Being part of an online or offline vegan community can help a lot, especially in the beginning. Get support from others, get answers to your questions, and relax in the presence of people to whom you don’t have to defend your lifestyle, or who you don’t have to convince of anything.

6. … But also break out of the bubble
Though being in a vegan community can be a great help, there is also the danger of ending up in an echo chamber. Keep talking to people who are not where you are. Not just to influence them, but to understand them and to learn from them.

7. Don’t exaggerate vegan claims
Some advocates like to tell others that veganism will solve all the world’s problems. Don’t buy it. It’s a great thing to do on so many levels, but it’s not a panacea. Exaggeration will not help our cause and will only make the less gullible more sceptical.

8. Don’t try to be perfect
If you’re 99% vegan, you’re vegan (at least in my eyes). You can strive for 100 or even 110%, but there’s little extra benefit (and it may even be counterproductive). Don’t feel guilty if you don’t make the 100%, and if you do make it, don’t look down on those who don’t.

9. Be food-focused
Arguments and discussions have their limits. Especially moral arguments can cause a lot of resistance. Food is a great way to influence others in a non-threatening way. Take people to a restaurant, cook for them, give them samples… Strive to give them great vegan taste experiences and the rest will be so much easier.

10. Be friendly and positive
Anger, frustration and impatience will only alienate others and keep them at a distance. Be nice and relatable. It’s better for you, and better for them. Believe in people, believe that most of them basically care. And have some faith that everyone is able to see the light.

Want to learn more about vegan advocacy? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World

Hybrid meat to the rescue? An interview with Jos Hugense from Meatless

The lower the amount of animals we raise (mainly for food), the more suffering (and obviously killing) we avoid. Lowering the amount of animals raised can come as a result of different things. Basically, it would be the consequence of a lower demand for animal products. We can help lower demand by increasing the number of vegans (which is kind of the default objective of our movement). We can also get many people to reduce their consumption of animal products. This, in itself, can be done in different ways. People can reduce the number of meals (or days) in which they consume animal products. Or – and this is a strategy not commonly considered – we can produce animal products which contain a lower amount of animal ingredients. A Toyota Prius is called a hybrid car because it runs both on gas and electricity. In a similar way, there are hybrid food products: they are part animal, and part plant-based. Jos Hugense, founder and CEO of the Dutch company Meatless, is at the forefront of this technology.Jos Hugense

Vegan Strategist: Jos, can you explain to me what Meatless is?
Jos Hugense: Meatless produces texturized products based on grains and legumes for food processing companies that manufacture vegetarian, meat or fish products. To bind our products, we use ingredients from seaweed, rather than extrusion techniques. We only use natural whole foods as basic material, and our products are unique in the world. They are used in vegetarian and vegan products, but also in processed meat and fish products to replace part of the meat or fish. These so-called “hybrid” meat products are one more way of replacing and reducing raw materials of animal origin.

Can you give an idea of the size of your operation?
Meatless operates in twelve different countries and has now substituted around ten million kg of meat since we started in 2006. We have seen growth numbers of over twenty percent every year since 2010. We currently produce one ton of product per hour. A second new production line is being built and will be in production from September 2017.

the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands
the Meatless factory in Goes, Netherlands

How and why did you get into this business?
I worked in the meat processing business for over thirty years. During the BSE (“mad cow disease”) epidemic at the end of the nineties, I started to look for more healthy, low-fat meat products. The sustainability issues related to animal farming were not very well known at the time. Then, in 2006, I came across Livestock’s Long Shadow, the famous FAO report. This was the first signal that the strong growth in livestock production after World War II posed big environmental problems. From then on, we tried to design not only healthier meat products, but we also specialized in more sustainable food, either entirely plant-based or with much less meat.

What do you see happening right now in terms of meat consumption, both in Europe and globally?
Globally, meat consumption is still growing, at a rate of about two percent per year. We passed a global production of 300 million tons in 2015 and are now heading for 400 million tons in ten to fifteen years time. That would mean a sixfold increase compared to 1960. In some European countries, we see a slight decline of meat consumption, or at least growth has stopped. Vegetarian/vegan products are seeing a healthy growth rate of about six to seven percent per year in Europe, as well as globally (though in the UK meat consumption has actually grown in the past years). But in spite of this healthy growth, the meatfree market is still relatively small. There is no sign yet of a drastic reduction, and we can’t talk about any real transition yet. The current situation in Germany, for instance, is €260 million in meatfree sales versus €20 billion in meat sales. So, we are nowhere near achieving a balance between meat and meatfree.

Do you think your product is compatible with the ambitions of the vegan movement? Put another way: does the vegan movement have reason to support hybrid products? On the one hand, they definitely decrease the number of animals needed. On the other hand, is it possible that this is a way for meat to reestablish itself as more sustainable and healthy, and thus to keep existing?
Meatless products are used in a number of successful vegan products in Europe and the USA. I don’t know if the vegan movement should support Meatless; that is a question it should answer for itself. I can tell you that myself and my product have been the subject of negative comments and discussions by vegans who believe this product is not in alignment with their values. Things often end up getting polarized, and polarization is often the end of the discussion and mutual respect. My approach to the ethical question is pragmatic. I see meat production and meat consumption as something which will not disappear in the next decades. But we need to urgently reduce our environmental footprint. Moving towards a more sustainable diet is not something we can postpone for too long.

Could hybrid products help people get accustomed to the idea of eating less meat? Are products with Meatless obviously lower in meat content (i.e. is it mentioned clearly on the packaging), or is done more stealthily?
We do it both ways. In the past few years, we have seen more and more acceptance of hybrid products, which means we can use this in some situations or products as a unique selling proposition. On the other hand, the negative comments and discussions I just referred to obviously do not encourage producers and distributors to be transparent. Companies don’t particularly like to be targeted by angry customers.

What is the ideal percentage of plant-based material in hybrid products? How far can we go?
Today, the most common ratio is 20 to 25% of Meatless in a meat product. However, we are testing up to 80% plants/20% meat for one of the big European food processors. In some applications, like hamburgers, I see that as very well possible in the near future. In any case, for all kinds of processed meat products, at least 25% is perfectly possible.

I guess some of the best vegan alternatives don’t taste any less meaty than a hybrid product. Do you think most meat eaters, choosing between a vegan and a hybrid product, would prefer the hybrid?
Meatless in a meat product can improve the product’s quality in such a way that in a blind tasting, it is preferred over the 100% meat product. We never had a blind tasting where a vegan product was preferred over a meat product, though it is true that vegan products can get close to “the real thing”, especially with spices and sauces. I would be very satisfied if plant-based products could match the taste of meat. We might get there, but perhaps we also have to get used to the taste of different products like nuts and beans. Eating vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean that one will use meat analogues in every meal.

Here’s a thought experiment: what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these three scenarios in terms of bringing us closer to a vegan world?

  1. one vegan
  2. two 50% vegans (half of their meals are vegan)
  3. two people who eat only Meatless products which are 50% meat, 50% plant-based

That’s a difficult question. It depends on the criterion you use. For what it’s worth, if you are mainly concerned about sustainability, I’d say 1 and 2 are similar. Whether 2 or 3 wins, depends on the nature of the products consumed – some foods are more sustainable than others, even within the vegan range. If you mainly consider the number of animals used, the three options have quite similar effects, I think. Of course, if you also consider non-food products (clothing, etc.), then the vegans clearly win. Finally, if you look mainly at health, probably a vegan may have to pay more attention to his or her diet. But what is the healthiest of these options depends on the optimal degree of animal products in one’s diet. We eat about 250g a day now. If the optimal amount of meat and other animal products is zero, then the vegan consumer would be the healthiest. Now, of course, to determine how healthy or sustainable a lifestyle is you’d also have to look at other factors than just food.

What do you think will be the role of clean (cultured) meat?
It depends on the resources that will be required in order to produce it efficiently. At this time, it is a very interesting scientific experiment. But many things have to be in place, both ethically and in terms of sustainability. And there is the question whether people will eat meat that doesn’t come from an animal but from a factory, without the involvement of an animal. Many customers are very reluctant to accept chemical or industrial foods, and it’s hard to predict how they will react to clean meat. The future will tell. In the meantime, we have to do research and development and testing, and we have to work hard. Like I said, time is running out.

More info:

Want to read more about strategy for the vegan movement? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

Changing the world making pies: an interview with Laura Verhulst

Laure Verhulst, aka "Madam Bakster"
Laure Verhulst, aka “Madam Bakster”

During her studies, Belgian Laura Verhulst developed a strategic plan for a plant-based pie business. Not much later, she officially founded Madam Bakster (Bakster means female baker in Dutch) and then won an award for the best business concept during her master year. She decided to not finish her studies and, instead, to go full on for plant-based entrepreneurship. Now, we’re two years later. Laura is 23, and among other things, she has her own beautiful coffee shop in Ghent, the town where I live. Her pies have names like Heidi, Raymond and Naomi. I talked with Laura about how healthy and tasty desserts can help us forward, about having your own business, and about how to sell a vegan cappuccino to an unsuspecting customer.

Vegan Strategist: You’re obviously an ambitious person. What’s your main drive to do all this?
Laura Verhulst: For me personally, it all started with a passion for healthy eating. That’s the way I got in touch with the whole plant-based thing. When I founded Madam Bakster, I wasn’t a consistent vegetarian, much less a vegan. Initially, I used yogurt in my pies. Later, I decided they would not have any animal products at all. Part of the reason for this was very practical: I was making all these pies in my student dorm room, and wasn’t well-equipped in terms of food safety. Eggs posed the highest risk, so I left them out. But just as important for the decision to go all plant-based was that I would be able to cater to more people with food allergies.

Have your motivations changed or evolved since you started your business?
Definitely. Now, when I give public presentations I talk about health, sustainability and animals, and I give each topic the same attention. Three years ago, the animal argument was hardly on my radar at all, and I never would have thought that I’d ever be speaking about veganism and animal wellbeing. So, you can say that this topic kind of grew on me.

Your business is very mission driven, but you seem quite subtle in how you approach people with your message.
Yes. I definitely want to help create change, but I don’t like to push my opinions and ideas on others. That’s just not my way. Looking at my own process, I found it easier to be open to the topic of veganism because no one pushed it on me. I largely did my own research. I was present in online communities of people who ate more or less the same way, for different reasons. So, I investigated their motivations. I believe that when people make choices out of their own free will because they want to be informed, they will come to interesting insights. It’s like a diet: you need to want to do it, and you won’t keep it up if it’s forced on you. I apply the same approach with our coworkers: none of them are vegan right now, but we each take turns cooking lunch, and it’s vegetarian or vegan by default. I see people open up this way to have a good conversation, which is really great.

Laura’s vegan pies have names like people.

While your products are entirely vegan, you don’t use the word vegan in your communication?
That’s right. Our target audience is not vegans as such, but people who want to eat more healthily. So, we use terms like “plant-based” or “without animal products”. They speak to a larger audience. People are triggered by those words, open themselves up for information and take a look at the why and how. Most of my customers are health-oriented. The only cue we give is that our logo and our window say Madam Bakster: the guiltfree bakery. That’s ambiguous on purpose: it can be about health, but also about animal welfare. Our aim is to talk to as broad an audience as possible. Everyone should be able to enjoy the same pie, whatever their motivations or values.

If you’re so subtle, I assume quite a few people who enter the coffee shop may not be aware that everything is plant-based?
Right, many people don’t know. We’re in the historic city center, and there are a lot of tourists walking in. When they order a cappuccino, I won’t say it’s vegan, but I’ll tell them that we make our milk ourselves, and that they can choose between hazelnut milk, which is more creamy, and almond milk, which is more sweet.

Do you feel you can make people see plant-based as an enrichment rather than a limitation?
Sure! Having to avoid something can be very enriching. You need to use new ingredients, new techniques… and a whole new world opens. You’re not stuck to the classic repertoire of recipes. Many people are curious about new things. When I tell them about aquafaba, for instance, they think it’s fantastic!
I don’t focus on the fact that something is right or wrong. It’s very important to me that a person’s first contact with plant-based eating or veganism is positive. So, I will try to get people excited about the alternatives and their qualities. I say that nut milks, for instance, are awesome: tasty, healthy and easy to make yourself!

How vegan are you yourself?
I’m vegan at home. Outside the home, I may be flexible at times, but I’m always at least vegetarian. For my boyfriend, it’s different. He is in favor of 100% consistency and prefers to rebel against any social pressure. It’s not rare that nights among friends end in debates that are not entirely enjoyable [laughs]. I experience very often how non-vegans want to control the diet of a vegan. They will talk about the risk of protein deficiency, about how soy or almonds are not all that sustainable either, etc. I definitely experience less hostility when the argument is health rather than ethics. Also, me and my boyfriend initially didn’t use the word vegan for ourselves, but since we do, we get more criticism. It’s kind of more liberating not to use it.

Speaking of vegans, what do they think of your business?
Some think we’re just not explicit enough about veganism. Many of them also don’t care much for the health aspect of it. In fact, it seems that quite a few vegans actually are proud that they don’t care about their health and that health is not an argument for them. But at least we reach those vegans who do think health is important.

You also give a lot of public presentations. What do you talk about?
I talk about entrepreneurship and marketing, and tell them my story about how Madam Bakster came into existence. But the biggest part is about healthy baking. I tell people that I analysed and then replaced the four staples in desserts: sugar, flour, butter and eggs. Why do we use them? We can we use less of them? I show the alternatives and their benefits. People go home with a wealth of new information.

You have a cookbook, a tearoom, a catering business, and you give public talks. That’s not bad for a 23 year old. Any other ambitions?
I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to desserts. Maybe we’ll try to sell the nut milks that we make here commercially in stores. I also would like to make my business more inclusive and in the future employ people who are in any way challenged in the job market. Maybe, I’ll want to open other coffeeshops. I think I don’t want to do just Madam Bakster as brand. I’d also like to found a non-profit with the same vision. I’m very interested in initiatives that promote people actually getting together, offline. I think social media has become a kind of opinion industry where we constantly judge people for all sorts of things. And that’s just not conducive to a good conversation.

How viable is your business economically, with ingredients that are more expensive than average and you guys making your own milks and putting in a lot of manual labor?
It’s a challenge. But I’m an entrepreneur first, a baker second. I find entrepreneurship super exciting. Yes, we have some expensive source ingredients. And I do find it important to keep everything affordable. So, there’s a lot of fine tuning of recipes. The profit margin is not huge, and employees in Belgium are very expensive. Perseverance, I think, will be one of the keys to success, and flexibility to adapt to the market. I hope to some day be able to get the fruits of my labor and invest the money in other projects.

What would you recommend to starters?
Be rational: Test. Listen to customers and other people. Have a sound business plan. Check if there’s sufficient demand within your niche. Pay enough attention to a healthy financial bottom line, no matter how much of an idealist you are. Financial sustainability is important when you want to change things. Some people seem to think that when you try to do something with a good purpose, you shouldn’t make any money off it. I don’t think that’s a smart way of looking at things.
Another important thing is to never lose sight of your mission. The bigger a business gets, the further away the boss is from the base. I don’t ever want to lose touch with my initial motivations, with the essence. I really want to get out of bed every day and know why exactly I am doing this. Every week, I receive emails from people telling me I made a difference for them. That’s very gratifying.


Read more about why health arguments are important in my new book How to Create a Vegan World, now available worldwide on Amazon.

One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

To many vegetarians and vegans it’s a mystery: we’re doing our best to be caring and compassionate towards all sentient life, and therefore choose to boycott eating animal products. Isn’t that something commendable? But then why do so many people seem to mock, criticize or even attack vegans and veganism?

Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. We may inconvenience omnivores by making them wait while we inspect labels, or by vetoing their choice of restaurant when we go out for dinner. But this doesn’t really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times.

Part of what’s happening here is a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of morally motivated others.

You may have experienced it yourself as a vegetarian or vegan: without even having said anything at all, meat eaters at the table may get defensive by making fun of you and your “diet”.

Why does this do-gooder derogation happen? The problem is that people will often feel that your behavior (i.e., your eating or being vegan) is an implicit condemnation of theirs (their eating meat). Morally good behavior seems to often come with an implicit moral reproach towards others.

According to researchers who have studied do-gooder derogation, “moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing (…). Because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment.” The response to this threat to our moral identity, then, is to put down the source of the threat (Minson and Morin).

Merely thinking about how vegetarians see the morality of non-vegetarians can trigger the derogation effect. When meat eaters anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – i.e., when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation.

Now, the biggest problem that should concern us here is not that the ethical consumers (in this case, the vegans) are offended, ridiculed or treated badly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to ethical values in the future. In other words, the negative comparison doesn’t just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane).

So, to summarize, this is what may happen (worst case scenario).

This is obviously problematic for the spread of vegan values and behavior. So, here are my suggestions to avoid causing non-vegans to feel morally reproached, and thus to derogate vegans and veganism, and thus become more alienated from us and our message.

  1. Don’t “rub it in”. If people often feel guilty already, and experiencing moral reproach alienates them from us and our message, don’t add to their feeling of guilt or moral reproach by further guilt-tripping them. It won’t help (even though sometimes it might be fun or satisfying to us).
  2. Don’t only use moral messages and arguments. These can be problematic in the sense that they bring forth more do-gooder derogation than non-moral messages. Non-vegans feel less threatened by people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons than by ethical vegans. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using ethical arguments; just that also talking about health (or taste) can be strategic and productive.
  3. Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
  4. You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person. Choosing to not eat animal products is a morally better choice, but that doesn’t mean that people who are still eating animal products are bad people.

Rather than adding to derogation, alienation and disempowerment, we can do our own part in creating connection and rapport with others.

(Read much more on effective communication in my new book, How to Create a Vegan World).


Stepping in other people’s shoes: those annoying gluten-free people

Those who follow my work a bit may know that I attach great importance to the ability to step outside of our own experience. This means that we’re trying to take the position of the people we want to reach. We’re trying to see how they view us, how they hear our message. To read more on this, see You are not your audience.

It’s not easy to put yourself in other people’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them, listening to us. What can help are thought experiments or situations in which someone else is to us what we are to non-vegans. I already wrote about the imaginary superlocavore vegans, who, because they go further than us “common” vegans, may engender in us some of the feelings of guilt, inferiority or accusation that we may cause among non-vegans. Here is a more realistic example of a situation that taught me something about how non-vegans may experience us and our eating habits.

Not so long ago, I had people over for dinner who had announced that they were allergic to gluten. I discovered some feelings and thoughts within myself which I thought might be quite similar to the feelings and thoughts that non-vegans have about me – particularly when they’d have me over for dinner.

Glutenfree cartoon

I discovered I didn’t quite know what the gluten-intolerant eat and don’t eat.
In spite of being confronted with the word and concept gluten-free like all the time, on product packaging, in restaurants, etc., I did not have sufficient knowledge on the topic to confidently make a glutenproof meal for my guests. I had to look stuff up. I found I was confused by the whole thing and when I googled it, I found terms like gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, celiac disease, etc. Gluten, it turned out, is not just wheat, but also grains like spelt, barley and rye. And what about oats, which are technically ok, but which often get contaminated with gluten. Was this contamination an issue too for my guests, or what?
We often raise eyebrows or even poke fun at non-vegans being slow on the uptake and think: “if it comes from an animal, I don’t eat it: is it that difficult to understand?” But maybe it isn’t that easy after all. A gluten intolerant person may wonder just as well: “How many more times do I need to explain this simple concept?” In both the domains of gluten free and animal free, there are different terms, different degrees of strictness, different motivations… It is maybe not as easy to understand as we think it is.

I was questioning my guests’ intentions
I don’t like it when people seem to think I’m requesting a vegan meal for some trivial reason. Sometimes, you can almost see non-vegans think that you’re doing it for the attention, to be special, to be part of the hype. It’s not fun. But I discovered I was doing a bit of the same thing with my guests. Why did they request to eat gluten free? Did they actually have a medical condition? If so, which one? Were they actually harmed by gluten, or was it maybe not all that bad? Or were they perhaps – god forbid – just following a trend?
I know, I shouldn’t do this. I should just honor their request. But this was the first time this happened to me, and moreover, I am not in the US, where every single dietary request is treated with the utmost respect. That kind of thing still has to blow over to most European countries. So, forgive me for being a rube here.

I was nervous about my cooking
I quickly went over the staple dishes that I cook for guests, and they all had gluten. I’d have to make something else. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was, at least, mildly annoying, and it made me slightly nervous. I couldn’t count on the sure-fire success of my usual concoctions. Somewhere a bit deeper in my mind, I was putting the blame for this, and for the risk of this night not being a culinary success, on them. I was even considering making something separate for them and me (and my girlfriend) so that at least we would have something I knew was going to be good.

These are some of the less and more rational, less and more selfish thoughts that went through my head. You may think: but the gluten free thing is so totally different from the vegan thing! In the vegan case, we have those great moral motivations, that very important ethos that people have to take seriously, right? Shouldn’t we just be crystal clear about our intentions, about the non-triviality of our motivations? Shouldn’t we just be unequivocal in our communication and uberconsistent in our behavior? Then, it will all be clear, right? And once it’s clear, our requests will always be honored, without question.

Well… I’m not entirely sure. It seems that for many or most non-vegans, it’s very hard to entirely grasp how important exactly those moral motivations are for us. For many, health concerns are easier to take seriously. Think about how the surest way not to get any dairy in your restaurant dish is by announcing you’re lactose intolerant (sure, that has to do with a restaurant’s liability too). But even in those cases, many of us – like bad bad me – may not automatically take people’s dietary requests entirely seriously, and may second guess their guests or customers. And as far as being consistent goes, I can tell you that if my guests would have said “oh, a little bit of gluten here or there doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it,” I would have been appreciative for the break they’d given me, rather than confused.

The point of all of this, again, is to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. That may increase our understanding of them. And understanding where other people come from will almost always improve our appreciation of and our communication with them.







Four degrees of separation: How to sell a vegan restaurant dish

Imagine a certain vegan dish in a restaurant. Let’s say it’s a dish called “Moroccan couscous”. Which of the following situations do you prefer?

When I ask what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criteria you use to assess these situations. Are you thinking about your own convenience? In that case, you may prefer option one: in vegan restaurants, there is no hassle, there are no queries, no risks, no uncertainties. If you can’t have a vegan restaurant, you may prefer your vegan dishes to be clearly and neatly separated from the other ones. A physically separate vegan menu may give you the feeling that you’re really being looked after here.
But of course, our own convenience isn’t the most important aspect here – at least it isn’t for me. Much more important is: how many people will order this vegan dish?

If we look at this criterion, then we may have to conclude that the vegan restaurant may not necessarily be the best option. There are, presumably, many people who never set foot in an exclusively vegan place. At least, they may not do so voluntarily (they may be dragged along by the vegan in the company). So, a vegan offering inside an omnivore place may – at this point in time – be able to confront more non-vegans with the vegan idea and option than a vegan restaurant can. (This is not to say that vegan restaurants don’t have any advantages – see Vegan Islands vs. Infiltrators.)

But also within the context of an omnivore restaurant, we have different ways of separating the vegan from the non-vegan. To what degree should we separate and identify vegan dishes?

A separate vegan menu (option 2), like I said, gives us a nice feeling, but I’m not sure if it’s very productive. The many restaurants in billionaire Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels all have separate vegan menus, but as a customer, you have to know that. The waiters don’t offer this information spontaneously, so there is little chance that a non-vegan will order a vegan dish there.

The next degree of separation is a separate vegan section on the (same) menu (option 3). Is this an interesting option? Here’s where a new study, done at the London School of Economics, comes in. Behavioral science researcher Linda Bacon (I know) investigated if plant-based dishes were ordered more or less frequently when they were listed separately on a menu. The result was that in the case of a separate vegetarian section, the likelihood that these dishes were ordered dropped by a staggering 56%! (I’m assuming that the difference would be bigger still if the section carried the name “vegan dishes”).

One of the possible explanations is that a separate section may reinforce the idea among omnivores that vegetarian or vegan dishes are not for them. Imagine how you look at a section that says “gluten free” or “suitable for the lactose intolerant”. If you don’t belong in the category of people that prefers these foods or needs to eat this way, you may think that these dishes are not for you and, what’s more, lacking in something. Even worse than “vegan dishes” would obviously be a section titled “for vegans” or “for our vegan friends”. Even though this wording is rare (I have come across it), this is how most people think about vegan dishes: as dishes for vegans. In newspaper articles and reviews, vegan products, vegan fairs, vegan restaurants… are very commonly described as stuff for vegans. As vegans ourselves, we should be careful not to confirm this idea, and not automatically presume that whoever uses a vegan product, whoever is present at a vegan fair or a vegan talk… is a vegan. We are only confirming the separation between vegans and non-vegans that way.

So, at least if we’re just looking at sales figures, it seems, for now, that we shouldn’t separate vegan dishes on the menu. The next degree of separation is about incorporating the dish in the menu (option 4) while clearly labeling it. Here, of course, much will depend on the exact label we use. There are different possibilities: vegan, plant-based, vegetarian, meat-free, etc. Alain Coumont, founder of the world famous chain Le Pain Quotidien, prefers the term “botanical”. Also, different degrees of subtlety can be used. The label can be in small or big letters, bold or not, or we could put an asterisk (*) after the menu item and explain at the bottom of the page that these are vegetarian (vegan/plant-based…) dishes. I think we should not worry about the (in)convenience for vegans here. A vegan is used to scanning menus and looking out for these things. What matters, again, is how many people order the dish.

Finally, we can avoid separating vegan from non-vegan at all (option 5). This means not communicating at all that a dish is vegan. I’m guessing that this would maximize the amount of vegan orders. But there are some downsides to this. First of all, much less than the previous options, this is not convenient for vegans at all. More importantly, if vegans don’t patronize a restaurant because at first sight it doesn’t have any vegan options on the menu, we will not be able to help boost the restaurant’s sales of the vegan dishes, and thus, their commitment to offering them. In addition to that, many people may order these vegan dishes, but one could argue that if they don’t know a dish is vegan at all, it may be a missed opportunity (see also The Rise of the Stealth Vegan Restaurants).

Obviously, apart from the degree of separation and the labels we choose, there are many other factors that can influence customers’ choices. Apart from pricing, there is, for instance, the name of the dish. We can call a dish “Moroccan couscous with market fresh vegetables, toasted spices and fresh mint”, and make it sound so tasty that anyone might choose it.

As with many things, which choice is the best one is a matter of time. We can do more research and see what people want to order and eat. But if they don’t want to order vegan, that doesn’t just mean we should be careful with the label “vegan” (and separating the vegan from the non-vegan). It also means that we need to work more on the popularity and image of the term (assuming a term like “vegan” is a useful thing to have).

Ideally, vegan becomes an extremely positive term and thus a label that increases sales. We are not there yet, but we need to work towards this. The vegan movement can help with this too, in different ways. First of all, we should not see it as a negative thing when “vegan” becomes a trend, as seems to be happening in more and more places. We should appreciate any reasons why people choose vegan, even if those reasons may seem superficial to us. I think it’s not a good idea either if we go around saying how all of this has nothing to do with veganism (because veganism is about ethics, etc. – see “Don’t You Dare Call Yourself a Vegan). Every time someone orders a (good) vegan dish, for whatever reason, things happen. Restaurants notice the interest. And people have a good taste experience, and their hearts and minds open up a little bit more to all our moral arguments.