Reflecting On Finland’s Meatless October Campaign
With the rising interest and widespread availability of plant-based foods, meat no longer seems to hold the same cultural position it used to. Access to vegetarian alternatives plus fluidity in modern dietary patterns and consumer choices must surely equal decreased meat consumption, right? Statistics imply otherwise as the total consumption does not show an equally strong downward trend. However, meat consumption is regularly mentioned in sustainability discourses. The rise of social media has opened up new pathways to overcome the apparent lack of practical and sustainable tools for reduction.
In this study, Finnish researchers chose to analyze the ‘Meatless October’ campaign that took place in 2013, the first initiative of its kind in Finland. Throughout the dietary challenge, several practical everyday barriers have been identified, including finding nutritionally and culturally appropriate alternatives to meat, and the lack of skills and socio-material resources to turn intentions into everyday action.
The social media whirlpool that ‘Meatless October’ entered could have boosted its development and growth, while influencers could act as catalysts in creating an engaging participatory culture around the topic. In the end, over 30,000 people expressed their interest in taking part in what has become the largest public campaign aiming at meat reduction in the country ever since. Although the campaign was repeated the following years, public interest around it gradually declined.
The researchers picked 10 personal blogs to be included in the analysis, totaling 141 blog updates across the board. Demographically, the data included mostly women with a family and children, but also some men, couples without children, and single people. Within the families, many spouses also participated in the campaign. It seems that the participants were often strongly motivated by the campaign’s sustainability frame. Interestingly, roughly half of the people included fish in their diets during the month. The focus was placed on understanding participants’ perceptions of the campaign and learning from the reflections of the experimental process.
In general, participants tended to discuss the campaign on both a general level and through personal choices. The latter was actually described in much more detail, suggesting that the campaign was taken up as a highly personal challenge. Thoughts about not being able to eat tasty food evoked feelings of stress and doubt at the beginning of the month. However, they typically subsided, especially when participants found inspiring recipes that they could pull off. When discussing the practicalities of the diet, cooking skills and great recipes took a central role as compared to issues such as affordability, time constraints, shopping, or, in fact, eating in itself. Indeed, participants typically emphasized their limited vegetarian cooking skills and expected that succeeding would require near pro-level expertise.
As the challenge went on, some of the participants began feeling exhausted by constantly having to learn new things and that they simply missed familiar foods. It took time to adapt both mentally and physically to the new diet. More specifically, time constraints became the main issue. In terms of problems, it also seemed that eating out was seen as a significant nuisance while cooking at home was one that could be overcome with more practice. In general, participants tended to attribute both their successes and failures in experimenting to their individual capabilities.
The fact that most of the discussions revolved around the novel cooking experiences is in line with some previous studies that point to the practical know-how of preparing tasty plant-based food as the perceived major barrier for meat reduction. While people came into the challenge expecting difficulties in cooking well, problems when trying to eat out came as a surprise for many. In terms of resources, the various social connections made and the campaign itself were experienced strongly positively. Personal cooking skills, although underestimated initially, became a source of joy in the end, with many participants expressing positive surprise in their ability to pick these skills up. Meanwhile, while time was seen as a negative constraint by some, economic resources were discussed seldom during the campaign.
It seems that the acknowledgment of a collective activity acted as a motivator and support that set the individual changes in motion. Through sharing know-how and experiences with other participants, people embraced the campaign’s public context that helped facilitate the experimenting process in one’s kitchen. The loose and light organizational structure of the campaign could have aided this by not restricting the ways the experimenting could be done by the individuals taking part. There were no signs of the old definitions of vegetarianism resurging, where meat avoidance has typically been related to marginal practices often considered unpleasant and even weird to mainstream consumers. Despite all of the positives, it is important to note that the campaign had no clear effect on total meat consumption in Finland and might have benefited greatly from the novelty factor back in 2013.
Although it is difficult to evaluate the long-term effects of such dietary change campaigns on either meat consumption or individual change, the article reveals clear positive experiences that at least some of the participants had experienced while on the challenge. Animal advocates engaged in pursuing individual change in consumer behaviors can definitely make use of the findings and gear any upcoming campaigns towards tactics that could enable maximal engagement, increased potential for positive experiences, and limited risks for participants to experience frustration, stress, or ostracization.