“NO CHICKEN, no eggs, and no cheese, please,” is a typical line said by vegans when ordering their menus at restaurants. A practice based on the absence of contact with animals, veganism is rising in popularity all around the world, and Korea is no exception. With its rise, the spectrum of such lifestyle is also expanding. Veganism in Korea is now evolving into a wider and more versatile philosophy, possible through its developing outlook as a commercial interest.
A green philosophy
According to Vegan Society, a vegan organization founded in the United Kingdom, veganism is defined as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible […], all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals.” In other words, veganism is a philosophy that calls for a peaceful, non-predatory coexistence between animals and humans. As such, vegans not only consume a plant-based diet, but also prohibit all use of animal-derived materials, which can range from authentic leather wallets to animal oil-based makeup.
Most vegans outside of Korea express that they have adopted this lifestyle for environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Musician and activist Moby confesses in one of his Ted Talks that he became a vegan after having a critical epiphany—he realized that humans claimed they loved animals, yet they were willing to slaughter cows and chicken for their daily meals. He called such attitude a “paradox” and stated that many are blind to such irony. Moby’s sentiments are shared with other vegans, so they participate in such activism for ethical reasons.
As veganism is a movement against animal consumption and cruelty, many vegan activists preserve this original purpose by promoting organic, sustainable brands and boycotting unsustainable labels. Examples of vegan clothing lines include ASOS, Dr. Martens, and Stella McCartney, which are known to substitute non-vegan materials with other alternatives such as linen, recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), and even seaweed fiber*. Vegan cosmetics, too, are created following a cruelty-free procedure. For example, vegan lipstick and shampoo are manufactured with organic alternatives such as olive oil and shea butter. All in all, these lifestyle changes show that vegan products are being created for the sole purpose of animal protection, conserving the original green philosophy.
Veganism has reached South Korea in recent years, even establishing the Korea Agency of Vegan Certification and Services—Korea’s own version of the Vegan Society—in 2018. For many Korean locals, however, the practice of veganism is considered more as a “commercial trend, so numerous businesses in the fashion and makeup industries are taking this rising vogue as a marketing opportunity**.”
As a relatively novel concept in South Korea, veganism is seen more as a means of marketing than as a means of animal protection, though the original philosophy is still enrooted in its products. Currently, the Korean vegan population is growing exponentially, so brands are trying to advertise their products accordingly. Cosmetic manufacturers such as COSMEX and LG Household & Healthcare have recently shifted their gears from animal testing to more cruelty-free practices, showing how vegan labels are, in fact, becoming a commercial trend***. COSMEX even triumphed in receiving approval by Expertise Vegane Europe (EVE), an international organization dedicated to controlling and labeling vegan services, upgrading its legitimacy as a vegan trademark. As such, many other brands have started to follow the veganism trend.
One of the main reasons veganism has gained popularity in Korea is that the connotations of veganism are often associated with descriptions of its products being clean, natural, and healthy. For example, LUSH Korea’s motto is “personal, fresh and cruelty-free.” Their main focus is heavily anchored on “personal” and “fresh,” hence the reason the terms appear first in the statement. The vegan “cruelty-free” tag is simply an upgrade to the already existing advertising mechanism, brightening the spotlight on healthy cosmetics. Bonajour, another Korean vegan cosmetics brand, advertises with the slogan “genuine and skin-friendly natural makeup****.” Although the brand itself is vegan, Bonajour solely advertises the benefits its products can bring to the human skin. The advertisements’ visuals also exhibit photographs of models with healthy skin alongside images of organic ingredients, implying that organic, vegan products are more likely to give its consumers the same effect they have on the model. This contrasts greatly with western vegan advertisements, which uses pictures of animals to provoke sympathy and sometimes guilt.
The elements of “fresh” and “natural” are appealing because the country is fixated mainly on the well-being of the self, which is evident with the country’s obsessive culture of dieting and consuming organic food. To many Koreans, products that bring benefits to their physical appearance and health call for immediate purchase; thus, veganism has become an attractive means for businesses to use as a marketing strategy.
Melixir Cosmetics follows this kind of pattern. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Lee Ha-na, CEO of the brand stated, “Melixir targets two kinds of consumers: those who are vegan and those who have sensitive skin. The brand appeals to both groups because not only are plant-based ingredients much less irritant but also because they are healthier for the skin.”
Moreover, Lee confessed that she had received criticism from funders when she first initiated the project. Comments of doubt and concern followed the initial stages of the brand as critics stated that introducing such a new concept like veganism would be too much of a risk. The backlash was immediately shut down with the brand’s growing success, proving that Koreans are prone to adopting novel cultures when advertised appropriately. Lee's revelations further prove that Korea takes commercial approaches to rising trends.
Business is not a crime
At first glance, taking a cultural practice as ethical as veganism for monetary purposes may seem disconcerting. Commercializing veganism, however, is by no means wrong. Contrary to popular belief, taking a business approach on a certain culture does not indicate the exploitation of its philosophy; instead, commercialization can serve as a method of raising awareness because nothing reaches the mainstream mass more than media and advertisements. In an interview with the Annals, the owner of Oneul, a vegan bakery located in Cheonan, noted that big companies nowadays are willing to encompass veganism more into their businesses. They confessed that this can be seen “in a positive light, asthe rise in popularity will allow production of vegan goods to broaden and vegans will then gain more options.”
The owner of Vegan Kitchen, another vegan restaurant in Korea, affirmed similar thoughts, stating, “it is a natural phenomenon for a culture to become a trend and be immediately followed by commercialization. We hope that, through continuous marketing, veganism will become a culture of environmental activism and animal consciousness, rather than a simple trend.” Both shops, as well as Melixir, declare that it was due to the commercialization of veganism that the philosophy itself could expand in Korea. More people now know of animal cruelty and are calling for change. Less animals are harmed with the rise of vegan manufacturing processes, clearly showing that the marketing trend is changing society for the better.
It is also important to note that not all vegan brands in Korea were created as a result of the bandwagon effect; the owners of Oneul and Vegan Kitchen, along with Lee, all revealed they first initiated their businesses to genuinely create awareness of veganism and how it promotes environmental sustainability and no animal cruelty. Although the culture of veganism is currently being perceived through a monetary lens, the approach is leading to the spread of activism and awareness of animal rights. People are going vegan: for us and animals.
*KBS World Radio
**People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
***The Korea Economic Daily
****The direct translation for the phrase “정직하고 착한 천연화장품”