A 'real' vegan part 2 : Clarity for consumers

Consistency is key

In part one of this blog series we talked about the definition of veganism and explored some of the grey areas that are related to it. There are many issues to consider in our journey to be kinder and more compassionate to animals, especially when we are navigating these issues in a world in which it is the norm to actively oppress and abuse them. When you take into account the fact that we all come from different backgrounds, educations, cultures, and economic standpoints and consider how much of an impact that has on the language we use, definitions of ethical concepts like veganism seem blurry and difficult to pinpoint.

However we must agree that there needs to be a clear set of rules to define the vegan label for consumer purposes and these rules should reflect what is mainly accepted as the definition of veganism no matter what our personal ethics are. This helps businesses understand how to use the vegan label on their products, and brings a level of consistency to a topic which is already confusing and scary to the average person. 

If we are aware of how our personal ethics (for example only eating fair trade or refusing to consume palm oil) differ from the accepted definition of veganism we make it so much easier for other people to become vegan. Whilst curating the Vegan Norway app I have come across many examples of bad vegan labelling. A restaurant will meet someone who calls themselves vegan but eats fish and so will create a dish on their menu which includes fish sauce, a vegan burger will be served which comes covered in dairy based dressing, or a cafe will proudly proclaim that they sell vegan skillingsboller... which are secretly painted with egg. It is unacceptable for a business to advertise a product as vegan when they are unfamiliar with the meaning of the word, after all it only takes a few minutes to do a quick google search and find out. Bad labelling calls the trustworthiness of a whole business into consideration, and shows a disregard of respect for the needs of their customers ethics and allergies. 

The International Vegan Trademark

The international Vegan Trademark is the leading symbol of vegan-friendly products and services, with over 18,000 registered so far, more than any other vegan certification body. The Vegan Society introduced the Vegan Trademark in 1990, establishing the world's first internationally-recognised standard for vegan-friendly products and services. It has helped vegans feel safe with their purchases and shown non vegans that many everyday products which you might not have expected to be vegan actually are. The rules surrounding what constitutes a product as worthy of carrying the International Vegan Trademark are stated here.

What is it like to run a vegan friendly business?

For a better insight into this topic we caught up with Christopher Gulliksen, one of our favourite chefs and ethical food experts, he runs Mat Fra Hagen. Popular among vegans and meat eaters alike, Mat Fra Hagen has grown from 1 location to 3 in just over a year and they are just about to open a new place in Oslo! Their whole menu is vegan and they offer variety of food including burgers, wraps, salads and sandwiches as well as juices and smoothies. Most dishes are around 100kr and all of them are delicious but our favourite is the indiskrull. Most of the food is locally sourced and is served on boards with wooden cutlery. This place is trendy, local and delicious, what more could you want?

Hi Christopher, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

'Thank you so much for thinking of me to be included in this blog post. When you first asked me if I wanted to participate in this interview I must admit I was a little uncertain if it was right for me to approach this topic. 'Vegan' can feel like a strong and scary word, it has many meanings, and there are so many feelings surrounding it. For me, veganism means a happy trio of animal wellness, sustainability and health, and I find that people usually lean to one of these areas in particular. Personally, I actually shy away from calling myself a vegan. I mean, I don't eat fish or meat and I'm extracting as many dairy products out of my life as possible but it's still a process for me, because it's not just me that I am providing for, and that can make it a little complicated. 

Food is my thing and where I'm focused. I also have strong feelings about the role food has in health management. I have experienced low times in my own life, both mentally and physically. Putting all my energy towards an active lifestyle and proper food has really changed me for the better. I have two kids, my boy is now turning six, and my girl will soon be 4. I cannot say how I want them to eat, live, and act. I can only set an example, educate, and help them. I want them to have the freedom to be curious and that means they may want food and non-food that is not vegan. I cannot, due to my personal strong beliefs tell them otherwise, but I can over time teach them the benefits and consequences of their actions.

My biggest plans for the future are to continue to be curious, learn more, and give as many people as possible the opportunity to eat proper food, food that is exciting, sustainable, good for your body, and good for the planet. I am so fortunate that I can do this by opening restaurants, and by teaching others how to do that too.'

Sounds like good plans to us. It's interesting that you were worried about not being 'vegan enough' to do this article. That's exactly why we are writing this series of articles; to show people that you don't need to be one certain kind of vegan to interact with and be part of the vegan movement. We think that veganism is a journey, not a destination. It certainly sounds like you have achieved a lot on your journey so far! How do you navigate the needs of varying types of people and their definitions of veganism when you decide which products to use in the recipes you create for Mat Fra Hagen?

'We make the food we love. We want to be progressive, innovative and challenge ourselves to make new stuff. Hagen has grown so much in the last year. This means we are starting to produce high volumes of food which means we are faced with new obstacles. For example, when we are producing something with a third-party partner, like a burger, it becomes more difficult to be certain that they use ethical oils, packaging etc. Price is also an important factor here. It is more expensive to use ingredients that are ethically sound. For us ethical ingredients are important, but this may not be the case for our partners. 

Because of this dilemma we chose to build our own production kitchen in Trondheim where we produce 90% of our products. When we do need to outsource production, we make sure that the products are safe by writing contracts and visiting the partner to check they comply with our standards. This is not the easiest or cheapest solution, but it ensures that we control the process, and actually know what is in our products. We even try to make sure that the non-food products we use align to our values, such as cleaning supplies, materials etc.' 

Which grey areas of veganism do you get asked about the most?

'We very seldom get asked about them actually. Our customers are really happy and appreciate that we are one of the few places in Norway which have a 100% vegan menu. If there is anything they ask about, it is which oil we use in our dressings. We mostly get asked if our products are local or organic, which I suppose is a grey area for some people.'

Do Mat Fra Hagen take a stand on some of the grey areas or remain neutral, leaving the ethical choice up to each individual?

'As I mentioned earlier, we take a stand by controlling most of our production chain. By doing that we can focus on the ethical issues that matter to us. However we don't talk too much about these issues or even use the word vegan in our restaurants because we want to make the experience simple and food focused so that we can attract as many people to dine there as possible. We want people to eat there for the great food and good vibe! If we are successful in providing this, our customers often decide themselves that they want to know more about the ethics behind the food. They ask questions, attend courses, and follow us on social media. By doing so they learn more about the benefits by plant based food, a plant based lifestyle and the grey areas that are connected to it.'

How hard is it to avoid veganism's most talked about grey area; palm oil, when you are buying ingredients to use in the cafe?

'Not hard. Norway have good regulations on labelling of products. As long as we don't buy some hidden, dubious products from a shady producer we're good to go!' 

Do you have a special way of labelling products or animal product alternatives that makes it easier for your customers to understand?

'Not really, we just describe it in an understandable way. But this is something we have had to think about recently as I can reveal that we are opening our own retail shop! The idea here is to make great products that we ourself crave and want, and of course everything will be vegan! Again, we are not gonna shout VEGAN in the windows, we just gonna make good sh#$!
The labelling will be designed in a very clear way so that both my grandmother and my mother will know what to put in in their soup.'

Do you have a lot of non vegans that eat at your restaurants? Do they care about some of the issues we might consider 'grey areas' or 'add ons' to the definition of veganism?

'Wild guess - 50/50! And that is really something we are proud of. People come because they love the food and they see how easy and nice plant based food is. I don't think that most of them think too much about the grey areas. We just hope that the food will convince them, and that they will get curious about the other stuff afterwards.'

How important is it that other vegan organisations and businesses take a stand about ethical and environmental choices which stand outside of the realm of veganism?

'Very important! Plastic straws, packaging, waste, the list goes on. I think I heard something like we use 500.000.000 plastic straws everyday! And the restaurant businesses are probably one of the biggest contributors to that. It's just super unnecessary! And then there are businesses that buy a product produced in Norway, which is sent to China to be packed, and then sent back to a restaurant in Norway, or the restaurants which buy industrial products that are packed with sugar and mark it as a healthy option on their menus. It's our duty as business owners to take a stand on the ethical issues surrounding the products we sell and be honest with our customers.'

Do you have any advice to someone who is considering going vegan but overwhelmed by all the ethical dilemmas they are faced with?

'It's like when my Mama tried to quit eating chocolate for the 1245 time. She decided to go cold turkey, but it didn't work. When she tried the 1246 time she realised that she needed to take it slowly, and reduce step by step until it was just a bite a week and then she kinda stopped. Once you realise you don't need something in your life, and you feel that your body feels better off without it, you really won't look back! 

Find the aspect of veganism that is the most important to you and focus on that in the beginning, whether it's your health, or animal welfare or whatever. The rest will come naturally. By taking it step by step, things will suddenly just make sense. What used to be a dilemma will suddenly become very straight forward.'

Do you have any advice to restaurant owners who are considering adding a vegan option to their menu?

'High five! You are about to increase your profits since your now also making a choice that the millennials (why are they called that?) will snap about! And you are going in the right direction. Think easy and pragmatic. Why do I use butter for that dish? What effect does butter have in this food? What can I use instead of butter? etc. Make it a process, enjoy the process, and use the process to educate yourself. The great thing with playing around with a vegan menu (besides the obvious) are that you now have to think new. Taste, compilation, depth, technique and umami. Being able to be innovative with these elements is why you started your food business in the first place I guess.'

Thanks Christopher! That was a really interesting interview and we learnt a lot.

Find Christopher at Mat Fra Hagen, and see what he is up to on snapchat, facebook and Youtube.


Don't be afraid of other people using the the v word.

If you have ever been part of a vegan facebook group then you are probably familiar with the topic of this blog post coming up. Protection of the word 'vegan', the definition of veganism and whether other people are vegan enough. People will fight back and forth for hours on this subject, often the argument focuses on the individual and their right to use the word rather than the significant efforts they are making in their lives for animals. But why do people who all seem to want the same thing deep down fight so intensely for exclusivity of the word?

In my experience, this comes downs to fear. We fear that the meaning of the term 'vegan' is becoming diluted. We fear that others will consider veganism as unimportant or a fad if they ever see a so called vegan do an unvegan thing. We fear that all the hard work we have been doing as animal advocates is being shattered into pieces and that a part of our identity is being taken away and twisted in its meaning. We fear that we will go out and order what is advertised as a vegan meal and eat it all up only to discover that there was cheese, fish, or honey inside it.

But how are we helping the animals by policing and excluding people from the movement? Veganism sure is a growing movement but it could be so much bigger and save so many more animal lives if we stopped focusing on personal experiences with the label and shunning people who we don't align perfectly with. We need to let go of our fears and welcome everyone, no matter how far along they are in their vegan journey. Instead of focusing on who we do and don't consider vegan, let's work across our differences, swallow our pride in our personal beliefs and push for a common understanding of what veganism means in a consumer context.

This article is part 2 in a series of articles exploring the meaning of the word 'vegan'. Stay tuned for part 3 in which we discuss ways to make veganism visible and explore our own insecurities on being 'good enough vegans'. Read all about the 'grey areas' of veganism in part one here.