The word ‘vegan’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in the past number of years, with many fast-food restaurants, supermarket chains and clothing labels now creating animal-free products.
Although the term vegan was coined in 1944 – with the concept being traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean societies – it has only recently become a widely used and recognised term.
In just 2018 Collins Dictionary listed the word ‘vegan’ in its annual shortlist of notable words.
Being vegan is now often interchangeable with eating a plant-based diet, however, following a vegan lifestyle affects many aspects of a person's life, and would include changes such as not wearing leather shoes.
More and more people are dipping their toes into plant-based eating as the climate change conversation has grown exponentially in the past number of years.
As COP26 kicked off on Monday, one of Ireland’s veteran vegans Gerry Boland – who adopted the lifestyle over 30 years ago – said there’s no doubt that the benefits that veganism has for the environment has contributed to its rise in popularity.
“The single biggest thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint as an individual isn't to sell your car and buy a bike, it’s to give up eating meat, and a lot of people have copped onto that,” he explained.
“Vegan is such a common term now but that's really recent, a few years ago not that many people were saying they were vegan.
"It’s definitely climate change because people are seeing the effects of it, and it’s in the past 12 to 18 months, in particular.
"People like Greta Thunberg have had a huge impact- the world is waking up to climate change and I think that's the big driving force because I don’t think people would be becoming vegan in such big numbers if it was just for animal rights or health reasons.”
Although the Dubliner said the positive impact that being vegan has on the climate is a massive positive, the reason he made the change over 30 years ago was for the animals.
“I went vegetarian first in the mid-80s and a few years later that led to me inevitably becoming vegan,” he said.
"Factory farming was the door that opened me up to giving up meat completely.”
The animal rights activist – who founded Animals Behind Closed Doors – said the major difference between being vegan now and 30 years ago is that there are so much more food options readily available.
"There is a big change happening, and it’s not a change I foresaw happening but in the last two years I’ve seen so many changes- like just going into my local Supervalu the vegan options they have is incredible.”
Nuala Donlan from Longford has been vegan for 30 years and also decided to adopt the lifestyle after learning about the factory farming industry.
“I grew up on a farm and one day I just made the connection that the meat on my plate was the animals in my field that I had such a close connection with,” she explained.
“It was a eureka moment and I thought..I’ve got to stop doing this.”
Ms Donlan first went vegetarian when she was a teenager and became vegan at the age of 20 while she was in university, however, at this stage she hadn’t actually heard of the word ‘vegan'.
“When I left home I started looking into factory farming and I realised that I would have to go vegan,” she said.
"I didn't know what the word was for somebody who didn't eat dairy or didn’t wear leather, I didn’t know there actually was another word.”
Maureen O’Sullivan from Cork went vegetarian when she was 12-years-old and has now been vegan for 33 years.
As the chairperson for the Vegetarian Society in Ireland from 2013-19, Ms O’Sullivan said there’s no doubt the conversation around climate change and the availability of information because of smartphones has largely contributed to the rise in veganism.
“There's greater awareness (on climate change) and the fact that information can be shared so quickly online and photos too,” she said.
“Also, the population is more urban and we’ve had a big influx of people from different parts of the world who also bring their knowledge with them and different kinds of foods.”
The most recent figures from Bord Bia’s Dietary Lifestyle report, which was released in November 2018, states that 4.1pc of the Irish population says they follow a vegan diet (the report did not differentiate between plant-based and vegan diets.)
However, there is an understanding that ‘flexitarianism’ – someone who commits to eating less meat but not becoming totally vegetarian or vegan – is becoming more popular as people want to reduce their carbon footprint without committing to the movement completely.
Mr Boland said he has “no time” for vegans that shame others for not doing better, as the journey is a process.
"A man told me he had stopped eating factory-farmed rashers and sausages and instead of saying to him ‘well why don’t you give up meat altogether’ I said ‘well done’.
"I’ve no time for people accusing others for not going the full hog- if you excuse the pun.
"I don't think it’s helpful, the way to deal with it is to be kindly persuasive.”
Ms O’Sullivan agreed, saying: “There's a bit of a hardline streak among some vegans that would say vegetarians are doing a lot of damage as well because they’re supporting the dairy industry, but, I see it differently because for me it was a slow process and things don't happen immediately, and it’s not easy for everybody to make an overnight switch.”