A Plant-Based Generation: How Gen Z’s Acknowledgement of Climate Change has Destigmatized Veganism

By Dana Chesser | Contributing Writer

Courtesy of Edgar Castrejon

With a whopping 4.9 million followers, vegan-cooking guru Tabitha Brown (@iamtabithabrown) has surpassed Taylor Swift in her cult following of Tik Tokers. The onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic saw millions of Americans flocking to the app in lieu of staying home, including Brown, whose vegan recipes and deep southern charm earned her a place in the hearts of Generation Z. In June of 2020, just three months after Brown’s debut, international pop-star Lizzo (@lizzo) announced her own journey into veganism, ritually posting tips and recipes for the remainder of the stay-at-home order. By September 2021, #vegan had 12.8 billion views on Tik Tok. So how is it that chefs and celebrities alike have earned acclaim for their decision to drop meat? And who exactly is their target audience? The truth is that veganism is skyrocketing among Generation Z and it has everything to do with their acknowledgement of the ongoing climate crisis.

Our clearest indication of a rising demand for vegan alternatives is, simply put, milk. Oatly, the notorious Swedish oat milk company, made its U.S. debut in 2016, largely contributing to the explosion of the alt-milk market. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based milk have increased by more than 61 percent since 2012, with approximately $1.6 billion in profits. It’s no wonder that by March of 2021, multi-billion dollar coffee company, Starbucks, added Oatly to their menu, subsequently inviting their competitors to do the same. In fact, the global alt-milk market is expected to reach $38 billion by 2024.

Unsurprisingly, the hype doesn’t end in the dairy aisle: PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world, and whose headquarters sit right here in Norfolk, reports that 79 percent of young people regularly choose meat-free meals. A 2020 National Youth Trends survey found that only 48.1 percent of Gen Z even identify as meat-eaters, with more than half regularly minimizing their intake.

While Gen Z actively de-stigmatizes veganism on the internet and occasionally among international coffee chains, their motivation in doing so is drastically less optimistic. Pew Research Center reveals that as of May 2021, 67 percent of Gen Z Americans believe the climate should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. Moreover, the same survey deduced they are particularly likely to express anxiety about the future when asked about climate change content online. These statistics may arise from this unique era we live in, where Gen Z activists are seemingly at the forefront of the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg’s school strike against climate change dominated global news outlets in 2018, inspiring more than 10 million people worldwide to demand climate action from their governments. Xiye Bastida is the 19-year old New Yorker who helped organize Fridays for Future, an American continuation of Thunberg’s work. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-centered activist group whose mission is to stop climate change and phase out fossil fuels, launched in Washington, D.C. just one year prior.

The front-runners of the climate movement are the peers of high school and college students around the globe, all of whom will inherit the responsibility of environmental policy-making within the next few decades. Thus, the issue of the climate has become something quite personal to Gen Z. Aside from lawmaking, dropping meat and dairy is one of the most effective ways that individuals can contribute to the battle against climate change.

It’s entirely understandable that young people engaging online are in want of a break. Facing a global climate crisis while simultaneously attending university, working part or full time, and maintaining personal relationships is undeniably exhausting. Sometimes the cheapest way to live is the most convenient, and many Gen Zers are still under the impression that eating meat is the only way to do so. However, the reality is that with the plant-based market booming, vegan alternatives to everyday foods are growing more and more prevalent. Be it Tabitha Brown’s famous vegan mac-n-cheese, or Lizzo’s take on “Nature’s Cereal,” pop culture icons have made veganism more accessible than ever with their own innovative and exciting recipes. To the remaining 48.1 percent of self-proclaimed Gen Z meat-eaters, there has never been a better time to give Tofurky a try.