Even if you didn’t ask for a plant-based (non-dairy) Terry’s Chocolate Orange at Christmas, you may still be watching Veganuary with interest. The campaign to encourage people to go meat and dairy free for 31 days is marking its tenth year — and the wider trend for people to drop their consumption habits in January, mostly for health reasons, is gathering pace.
Taking part in these experiments can have an impact on our future eating and drinking patterns. So should investors be taking a closer look?
Dry January was launched in 2013, and an amazing 9mn British people are planning to have a month off drinking alcohol this year, according to research from Alcohol Change UK, the charity behind the campaign. Meanwhile, 9 per cent of Brits have taken the vegan pledge in January at least once since Veganuary launched in 2014, according to research from YouGov.
One result is that pubs across the country are increasingly stocking low or no alcohol drinks. Research last year by consultancy KAM and low-alcohol beer brand Lucky Saint found nearly one in three pub visits (29 per cent) were alcohol-free. While under-30s remain a real “driving force” for moderating alcohol consumption, older age groups are also looking at new ways to cut back on their drinking, according to research last week from Waitrose.
Regarding animal products, Veganuary’s research found 85 per cent of non-vegan past participants have reduced their consumption since doing Veganuary. And among people who have not taken part in Veganuary, 37 per cent eat more plant-based food now than 10 years ago.
No wonder all the major supermarkets are expanding their vegan ranges, while drinks manufacturers are buying or launching low- or zero-alcohol ranges. But how can you align your money with your new consumption habits?
It’s still much easier to go alcohol free or vegan in a restaurant or supermarket than to follow this theme in the funds market. And Veg Capital, a rare fund that supports Vegan enterprises, donates all profits to charity. However, as an investor you can get exposure to the changes in consumption through some directly held shares.
Drinks giant Diageo acquired alcohol-free start-up Seedlip in 2019, and expanded its low-alcohol choices with the launch of Tanqueray 0.0% and Gordon’s 0.0%.
The company is a dividend aristocrat, having raised its payment to shareholders consistently for decades. Its collection of famous brands gives it pricing power. This week, it announced it will add Don Papa Rum, a dark rum from the Philippines. But with a price-earning ratio of 26 Diageo looks expensive.
Heineken — where its Heineken 0% has become the world’s number one non-alcoholic beer brand — looks more reasonable on a p/e of 14.
However, despite efforts to promote responsible drinking — Diageo campaigned together with Smirnoff on this over the festive period — these shares won’t work for an investor wanting to eschew alcohol entirely.
You might think another obvious soft drinks candidate is Coca-Cola, a favourite of Warren Buffett. But Coke has a small yet growing portfolio of alcohol beverages. Another option is Fevertree Drinks, which fell from grace last year. Nick Train, manager of Finsbury Growth and Income, this week called it his “biggest embarrassment of 2022”, while remaining optimistic for the brand’s prospects. But a company that predominantly makes mixers for gin is not a pure play either.
For complete avoidance, a sharia product could work. The Saturna Al-Kawthar Global Focused Equity UCITS ETF, is an active global equity ETF that uses a sharia-compliance screen. As a result, alcohol companies are removed from the index.
But what if you want to avoid meat and dairy too?
Unilever is one of several global brands targeting plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, pursuing vegan alternatives from its brands including Hellman’s and Magnum and Walls. Targeting €1bn annual sales from these alternatives by 2025-27, the marketing spend of this leviathan could prove a serious threat to smaller rivals. And in the category of “shares in quality companies that could fend off recession” it’s worth considering.
Meanwhile, some of the biggest pure play companies you can invest in have run into issues.
Oatly, the vegan milk brand regularly appearing in my fridge at the request of my teenage daughters, has been a huge flop after its 2021 flotation, with the shares dropping from $17 to $2.
The US is the largest market for “new” plant-based meats that simulate real meat in taste and texture. Among these, Beyond Meat is probably the best known, but has not had an easy journey. In October 2022, it became the latest company in the plant-based meat sector to reveal a hit from inflation and rising competition, slashing its sales forecast and revealing a plan to cut its workforce by almost a fifth.
The Association of Investment Companies told me no investment trusts are holding Beyond Meat and Oatly. That vote of no confidence is good enough for me.
There are plenty of other low-alcohol and vegan food brands. But it’s often difficult to get investment exposure as they raise money privately from institutions.
One way for ordinary investors with higher risk appetite to get exposure is through tax-advantaged venture capital trusts. Lucky Saint, official partner for Dry January, recently did a fundraising led by ProVen VCTs. The £10mn round was the largest raised by an alcohol-free beer brand in Europe.
Investors can also consider going beyond questions of healthy living or animal welfare. It’s an environmental issue too. Tom Bailey, head of ETF research at HANetf, says: “Food production, particularly livestock, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The trend for veganism is now often driven by consumers wishing to reduce the carbon footprint of what they eat, rather than purely animal welfare concerns.”
An easier path for investors interested in Veganuary is to consider carbon dioxide avoidance.
The iClima Global Decarbonisation Enablers UCITS ETF provides exposure to companies that directly enable CO₂ avoidance. It holds five subsectors including green energy, green transportation, water and waste improvements, decarbonisation enabling solutions and sustainable products.
Two companies in the ETF’s sustainable products subsector are, you’ve guessed it, Oatly and Beyond Meat. But held alongside 169 other holdings, that is limited exposure. The ETF price has fallen 20 per cent since its November 2021 peak — so this could be a good time to buy.