Are vegan cruises a moral and environmental oxymoron?

13 : 10 : 2017 Travel : Food And Drink : Sustainability
The Norweigan Fjords The Norweigan Fjords

For all their claimed benefits, these eco-excursions, which transport passengers to areas of natural beauty with fragile eco-systems, may be doing more damage than good, and are directly contributing to global warming.

Rachael Stott, visual trends researcher, The Future Laboratory

No longer the preserve of middle-aged and elderly consumers, the UK cruise ship holiday sector is growing at a record rate, with an 11.2% rise in river cruises and a 6.7% rise in ocean cruises between 2015 and 2016, according to industry trade association Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Travel operators are expanding their offering to attract a more diverse customer base, curating excursions based on collective interests such as wine, sports, celebrity personalities such as Oprah Winfrey, and now, veganism.

Tapping into the shift among consumers towards a more plant-based lifestyle, several cruise operators including Cruise & Maritime Voyages and Holland America Line are planning to launch vegan-friendly cruises that will offer cruelty-free food, drink and beauty products, wellness-orientated programmes of activities such as pilates and vegan cheese production, and talks from keynote speakers.

To many travellers, a holiday spent eating vegan food while cruising along the Norwegian fjords might sound like the ideal eco-conscious getaway, but taking into account the environmental damage caused by cruise ships, is the idea of a vegan cruise a misleading ethical and environmental oxymoron?

As cruise ships grow in size to carry thousands of passengers, so too does the level of air and water pollution they generate. A recent report by German environmental group Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) shows that one cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as 5m cars travelling the same distance because they use heavy fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Cruise ships also emit three times more carbon emissions than aircraft, according to a report by cruise line Carnival, and many passengers are unaware of the negative impact of travelling by cruise ship on their health. A recent study by Channel 4’s Dispatches team shows that passengers who sit in public areas on some cruise ships are exposed to twice as many pollutants as consumers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, casting doubt on the health benefits of an eco-cruise holiday.

The paradox of sustainable consumption appears to be that the more aware you are of the issues at stake the harder it is to actually live out your values

Cristina Longo, researcher at the University of Lille’s SKEMA Business School

For all their claimed benefits, these eco-excursions, which transport passengers to areas of natural beauty with fragile eco-systems, may be doing more damage than good, and are directly contributing to global warming, an issue that drives many to people to become vegan as they seek to offset the negative impact of their consumption. With locations such as the Galápagos Islands, Antarctica, the Norwegian fjords and the Bahamas among the most popular cruise ship destinations, vegans who strive to reduce their carbon footprint on land yet opt for a cruise ship holiday are in danger of undoing the positive impact of their lifestyle choice on the planet.

Most consumers would agree that people should strive to live and consume more sustainably, and with 6% of Americans now identifying as vegan, according to a report by research firm Global Data, and global meat production responsible for around 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the positive impact of ethical consumption on the planet cannot be denied.

Taking a stand against animal cruelty and committing to reduce greenhouse emissions – but only in certain circumstances – raises an important question: Is the notion of a truly sustainable consumer an illusion, marred by exaggerated claims and hypocritical actions? ‘The paradox of sustainable consumption appears to be that the more aware you are of the issues at stake the harder it is to actually live out your values,’ explains Cristina Longo, a researcher at the University of Lille’s SKEMA Business School. In short, being a conscious consumer or traveller means considering the impact of your lifestyle choices on future generations and the planet. If we continue to use environmentally damaging systems of transportation to explore areas of natural beauty, will there be anything left for future generations to enjoy?

A vegan lifestyle can help to save the planet, but perhaps reconsider cruising around it when planning your next holiday.

For more on how brands are driving positive environmental change, look out for our forthcoming Sustainability Report, which will be released on 3 November.