“Veganism has rocketed in the UK over the past couple of years – from an estimated half a million people in 2016 to more than 3.5 million – 5% of our population – today.”
Isabella Tree, The Guardian, 25 August 2018
“One recent survey suggested there could be as many as 3.5 million vegans in the UK. The Vegan Society offers the much lower figure of 600,000 vegans”
The Guardian, 1 November 2018
This isn’t the first time this claim has been made, a number of headlines and articles reported the figures earlier in the year. It’s based on a survey of UK adults commissioned by the price comparison website Compare the Market.
Previous estimates we’ve covered suggest that there are around half a million vegan adults in Great Britain, so we were interested to investigate this new figure.
The survey from Compare the Market didn’t actually ask people whether they were currently vegan, but whether they had ever become vegan for environmental reasons, without confirming whether they still were.
This issue, along with other problems in the survey’s design, means that it’s almost certainly overestimated the vegan population.
The Vegan Society’s 2016 figure that there are 540,000 vegan adults in Great Britain is the best available estimate we know of (though the true figure could well have changed over the past two years). It asked people questions about their (present) diet rather than whether they identified as vegan or vegetarian.
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The survey didn’t ask people if they were vegan or vegetarian
Compare the Market reported that 7% of the UK population is vegan, and 14% is vegetarian, based on a survey they commissioned. It’s not made clear from the release, but the underlying data shows that only adults were surveyed, so that 7% figure would equate to around 3.5 million adults in the UK who are vegan, based on the latest population estimates. Those 3.5 million adults equate to around 5% of the total UK population (including adults and children)—which is the percentage mentioned in the Guardian.
Compare the Market told us that two thousand adults were surveyed and the data was weighted to be representative of the UK adult population, so we can be reasonably confident that the survey’s findings are applicable to the UK adult population generally.
But the survey didn’t actually ask if people were vegan. The question asked was: “Which of the following have you done or are considering doing to help reduce your impact on the planet?” This was followed by a list of options, which included “becoming vegetarian” and “becoming vegan”.
7% of respondents selected “I have done this” for the becoming vegan option, and 14% selected “I have done this” for the becoming vegetarian option. But this doesn’t actually tell us how many respondents are vegan or vegetarian right now.
The main reason is because someone could have become vegan for a period of time but no longer be so. For instance, if you became vegan for a month as part of “Veganuary” (which around 170,000 people signed up for this year) but then stopped at the end of the month, you could reasonably answer that you had become vegan, even though you are no longer doing so.
Research also suggests that many survey respondents say that they are vegan or vegetarian even when their diet is not. Many surveys on veganism and vegetarianism therefore prefer to ask questions about people’s diet, rather than how they identify themselves.
On the other hand, some vegans may not have been captured by the Compare the Market survey because of the way the question is phrased: specifically asking whether people have gone vegan or vegetarian to reduce their impact on the planet.
What if you follow such a diet for religious or animal welfare reasons? Do you answer “I have done this” even though you did it for non-environmental reasons, or “not applicable” because you did it for other reasons? We have explained the perils of these so-called double-barrelled questions (when asking two questions at once can lead to confusing results) in more detail before.
Separate data suggests 7% is too high a figure
We’ve previously looked into other surveys which measure the vegan population of Britain or the UK to be around 1% of adults (about half a million people), and the vegetarian population to be around 2-3%.
These surveys all asked about diet rather than whether people identified as vegan or vegetarian.
As the most recent data we looked at was from 2016, it’s possible that the number of vegans has increased from half a million people aged 15 or over in Britain since then—but we don’t have any more recent, reliable data on this.