By Charley Iszatt
Users on Instagram – through producing images and coding them with hashtags – create a commons of social, cultural and political information. In the context of veganism, these practices have the potential to conceal its ethical foundations by becoming less politically charged and more personally motivated.
The popularisation of veganism, with the assistance of celebrity endorsement, has given it a new fashionable and accessible form. The health benefits of veganism have been credited with its recent entry into mainstream US culture, suggesting that these personal considerations are more motivating than ethical ones. Off Instagram, we have already seen that food ethics may not be as salient as other factors. Likewise, on the platform, searching for #vegan, #ethicalfood and #ethicaleating yields around 110 million, 51 000 and 44 000 posts, respectively, at the time of writing, demonstrating that associations to veganism are more popular than those to food ethics.
Businesses have appropriated Instagram for marketing purposes and utilise the work done by individuals to circulate and humanise branding campaigns. Some individuals – ‘influencers’ – offer access to the attention of their followers in exchange for capital. Hashtags function as a way to communicate through a wider discourse, creating more complex messages from individual information bits. ‘Influencers’ strategically manipulate hashtags to produce images and identities which, as described by Khamis, Ang and Welling in their research on self-branding practices, are ‘designed for public consumption … with an emphasis on construction, style and fluidity’, adding value as these meanings are constructed.
When considering veganism on Instagram, then image, identity and brand production favour aesthetics over ethics, the latter being circulated only under stylistic constrictions. As layers of aesthetics and meaning are assembled together via the platform, the ethical issues in the supply chains which deliver the produce from farm to phone are obscured. This fetishism can be seen to extend across sites of consumption at the supermarket and on Instagram; even in supermarkets, aesthetics are part of the product. In a 2003 article in the Guardian by British journalist Felicity Lawrence, they highlight the absurdity of flying chives from England to Kenya to tie together a bundle of Kenyan produce, only to then be packaged and flown back to England and put on the shelves.
The food market in the UK is truly insatiable, with consumers having access to Kenyan-grown crops year-round. Yet food networks in Machakos, Kenya, are shaped by food insecurity, as women make decisions to share surplus food to the poor or needy after satisfying household needs. The food sharing that occurs from community values in hospitality and kindness resonates with the ethics behind veganism. Despite these similarities there is an imbalance in visibility. Food sharing practices in the food networks of Machakos never enter the ethical trade discourse whilst influencers – some of whom incorporate veganism into their brand – have the ability to receive thousands if not millions of followers, leading to the opportunity to earn the same magnitude of dollars. As land in Kenya increasingly supplies export demands instead of supporting sustenance needs on home soil, agricultural workers become further alienated from the products of their labour whilst appropriation of these products affords influencers the means to accumulate social, cultural and financial capital.
These connections offer some understanding of the limitations of Instagram as a means of mass communication; in some ways a metaphorical ornate chive favouring aesthetical considerations and obscuring ethical ones.
By Charley Iszatt
Illustration: Paulina Cederskär