Yesterday’s private jet is today’s tofu dinner. At least that’s how it looks with American CEOs, who are coming out of the crisper to show off a brand-new lifestyle: joining the one percent of the United States population that abides by a vegan diet. Is veganism becoming the new polo club?
To PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. “CEOs are smart,” she says. “There just hadn’t been enough exposure for people to glom onto this trend. The information is everywhere now.” When asked about casino resort and real-estate developer Steve Wynn going vegan, including the Humane Society in his will, and selling the Mirage Hotel and its dolphin tank, Newkirk remarked, “Having dolphins in a small tank outside a casino is crazy. Ordering vegetables is not.”
This certainly wasn’t the case five or ten years ago. “For years the gospel of the vegan convert centered on Teva wearers fighting for animal rights or on righteous punks sticking it to their parents at the dinner table,” Kevin Gray wrote in “The Rise of the Power Vegan” in last month’s issue of Men’s Journal. As recently as 2004, Dennis Kucinich garnered criticism when he ran for the Democratic Presidential nominee because of his vegan diet. Even then, “America” meant steak and potatoes, and not eating your eggs and bacon made some wonder if he was part of another political party or an unknown ethnic group. Now, three percent of the US adult population self-identifies as vegetarian, about nine million people, four times the vegetarian population in 1994. Business Week decided to look at the growing trend and answer some questions about “the rise of the power vegan.”
There are plenty of powerful people who go vegan for health reasons, most notably former President Bill Clinton who changed his diet this past spring after undergoing major heart surgery so he can reverse heart disease and live healthy enough to see his potential grandchildren. Wynn sees it as a kind of health insurance plan when he persuades his employees to give up meat, dairy and eggs.
For others, eating a plant-based diet is something that needs to be done for moral reasons, such as in the case of Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who visited an animal rescue sanctuary in upstate New York and came home a vegan. Upromise CEO Tom Anderson is on the sanctuary’s board, and he says the only time his veganism becomes an issue is when potential business partners start trading hunting stories around him.
Then there are those who go vegan for love, or, to impress a girl, which is how Kucinich started 15 years ago. According to Business Week, “the rise of the power vegan coincides with the rise of the vegan second wife.” Case in point — Rupert Murdoch and former Viacom CEO Tom Freston.
Veganism also gives moguls a sense of control over their bodies that they already exercise everywhere else in their lives. Constant stress at work contributes to potential health problems, and while veganism isn’t a cure, it’s certainly a greater help than a meat-filled diet. In a country that loves its animal product industries, veganism is a challenge where a CEO can push himself to rise to the occasion. In a time when experience and time have become as valuable of commodities as money and consumption themselves, it makes sense that CEOs are amenable to adopting healthier lifestyles that eschew meat, eggs and dairy. In the long run, they see it as buying themselves more time and energy to continue the high-power lives they already enjoy.
These CEOs aren’t an isolated case, but rather a reflection of the change in mainstream male attitudes towards vegan diets. For a long time, a “manly” diet consisted of meat, and vegetables were more of a delicate, female-like delicacy. Society, therefore, was brainwashed into believing veganism might as well have been the dietary version of emasculation. Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat, went so far as to connect the links between meat eating and male domination and argued veganism as a more feminist diet. Yet with direct medical costs that can be attributed to meat consumption rising to $30-60 billion per year, choosing vegetables over steak is no longer a “feminine” decision, but a smart one. Now, male baby boomers are “embracing a restrictive lifestyle to look better, rectify a gluttonous past, or cheat death,” Kathleen Pierce wrote in The Boston Globe, labeling these men as “hegans.”
Regardless of the reasons, the fact that more and more of America’s elite are joining in on the vegan movement shows that a lifestyle free of animal products and by-products isn’t just for hippies or contrarians, as it has been portrayed for years. With these powerful converts comes more acceptance of veganism in the mainstream culture, as well as more awareness for the reasons why people choose to base their diets on plants rather than animals.
So who are some of these power vegans? Take a look below:
1. Steve Wynn, American casino resort and real-estate developer who has been credited for re-surging and expanding the Las Vegas Strip in the 1990s
2. Russell Simmons, co-founder of hip-hop label Def Jam and creator of clothing lines Phat Farm, Argylculture, and American Classics
3. Former President Bill Clinton, who now runs the William J. Clinton Foundation
4. Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of the Board for Ford Motor Company
5. Biz Stone, co-founder and creative director of Twitter
6. Joi Ito, venture captalist, CEO of Creative Commons, and General Partner of Neoteny Labs
7. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market
8. Mort Zuckerman, real estate magnate
9. Mike Tyson, yes the Mike Tyson, who has traded ear-biting for pigeon tending in Arizona
10. Alec Baldwin, who plays a CEO in 30 Rock, but also keeps a public profile off-screen in animal rights activism
Photo courtesy of Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr