Vegan trends put pressure on mainstream marketplace

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

“Dairy-free, cheddar-flavoured cheese.” This particular combination of words might not sound appealing to the average South African, but to some vegans its allure is undeniable.

Over the past few years, and particularly in recent months, Woolworths has been populating its shelves with products like this: vegan alternatives to conventional food items. For these items to be considered vegan, they must not contain any animal products — no dairy, no eggs, no honey.

There is little data on veganism in South Africa, but Woolworths says its decision to offer these products has to do with “a shift in customers’ habits towards a plant-based way of eating”.

“As with any new product range, we always consider local and global trends as well as customer feedback to inform new product development,” said Richard Stockley, head of innovation for Woolworths food.

Veganism is certainly trending. New York-based restaurant consultancy group Baum + Whiteman forecast that “plant-based” would be the number-one food trend of 2018.

Anna Jordan, the director of the South African Vegan Society, agrees that more South Africans are making the transition to a vegan diet.
This has led to a definite increase in the demand for vegan food products in recent years, she said.

Embracing the vegan community is regarded as making good business sense.

A 2017 Forbes article, titled “Here’s why you should turn your business vegan in 2018”, cites a number of indicators that “veganising” has the potential to boost business, including the fact that the global vegan cheese market is estimated to be worth just under $4-billion by 2024.

Woolworths, like other retail companies in South Africa, has struggled in the wake of the country’s recent economic instability. But, although the company’s fashion, beauty and home sections performed poorly in the 2017-2018 financial year, Woolworths’ food continued to trade ahead of the market.

In the company’s annual financial statements, Woolworths credited a “focus on quality an innovation” for its food aisles delivering this positive result.

Retail analyst Ron Klipin calls Woolworths a “disruptor in the market”.

“They are way ahead of their competitors in terms of fresh and prepared foods.”

Klipin said he is not surprised by the retailer’s decision to offer more vegan food items, especially considering the growing demand for health foods.

Although Stockley did not offer any details on how Woolworths has measured the success of its vegan range, he did indicate that customers have “responded well” to it.

With South Africa entering a technical recession it seems incongruous that consumers with smaller wallets would still seek out costly vegan products.

But a vegan diet that excludes expensive substitutes for foods, such as dairy products, does not necessarily cost more than that of a meat eater’s diet.

According to Statistics South Africa meat prices rose 9% between April 2017 and April 2018 — a fact that might make adjusting to a vegan diet attractive to those wanting to cut their food costs.

But a vegan diet that relies heavily on food substitutes can be on the more expensive side. Take some of the most popular vegan alternatives: almond milk, dairy-free cheese, vegan burgers or soy yoghurt.

At Woolworths a basket of these items would cost R195.92. The cost of the equivalent containing animal products is R144.41.

The only vegan substitute that costs less than its counterpart is the burger patty at R54.99, compared with the R89.99 for the beef version.

The cheapest basket is the vegetarian one, which comes to R109.41.

However, Woolworths relies on a client base that is willing to fork out a little more than the average South African on certain food items.

“If you look at Woolworths’ target market, most of their consumers have that sort of money to spend,” Klipin said.

The company can afford to price up these products, Klipin added, because its competition is “well behind” in terms of offering healthy and fresh foods.

Jordan said that increased competition is vital to the vegan movement. She noted that these consumers are economically diverse and so not all of them are willing to spend more on food.

“We’re not very happy about paying more. We don’t want to. But at the present time we are relieved that there are those choices,” Jordan said.

For now the idea is to put pressure on retailers, she added. “As the vegan population grows, we are hoping to see prices drop.”

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit