Veganism & Everett Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Curve

Over 40 years ago, Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani said “the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Today, the combustion engine is still with us, but it’s well on the path to obsolescence. Not because we ran out of oil, but because electricity is simply a superior technology. Likewise, the animal agriculture industry is bound to fade away, not because we can no longer farm animals, but because we have discovered better, cleaner, healthier, kinder ways to satisfy our needs.

But what makes some people adopt new ideas more quickly than others? What causes an idea to generate enough momentum to become mainstream? In 1962, sociologist Everett Rogers set out to explain these phenomena in his landmark book “Diffusion of Innovation,” which is now in its fifth printing. Even if you haven’t read the book, chances are you have run across his innovation adoption curve, seen here:

adoption innovation curve

Chances are, even if you haven’t seen this curve, you’re familiar with the concepts involved. Our everyday lexicon is peppered with references to “early adopters” and the “late majority.” Malcolm Gladwell even seized on the idea when writing his best-seller “The Tipping Point”, which explored how ideas go viral in the early adopter phase (something we’ll explore in greater depth in part 2).

But the basic idea is that there is an innovation adoption curve that begins relatively flat, with a small percentage of “innovators.” This group changes depending on the innovation under discussion. But, generally, they are people who are bold and unafraid to adopt new ideas that haven’t been fully tested. They don’t mind taking on the extra costs being “first” to follow a new path often entails.

Think of the people who bought Tesla Roadsters when electric cars were barely a thing, or stood in line to buy the first iPhone. Early technologies are often expensive and disjointed in comparison with later iterations. Hence, there is often a chasm between those willing to take a risk on new ideas, and those who prefer to stick with the tried and true.

Why the Adoption Curve Matter for Veganism

My vision of vegan world is one in which our planet ceases to use animals for food, clothing and entertainment because we have found infinitely better alternatives. The future is vegan. But how long it takes for that future to arrive will depend on a number of factors. Not least among these is the rate at which people adopt veganism as a lifestyle.

Currently, estimates vary, but vegans likely represent 2% or more of the population in the developed world. This number has been growing exponentially in many countries, with the number of US vegans growing over 600% in 3 years to 6% of the population.  Vegans made up 4% of Israel’s population back in 2014, and stands at over 5% today (with an additional 8% leaning that direction).

People who are going vegan today tend to fit squarely into the early part of the bell curve shown above. They are innovators and early adopters who are passionate about change and eager to evangelize about their lifestyle. I believe veganism is just beginning to cross over from being a squarely “innovator” focused lifestyle, to one that can appeal to the masses. “Innovator” vegans had to be willing to make their own soy milk and tofu. They had to be willing to cope with the social costs of going out to eat and finding nothing at their local restaurants. This naturally limited the speed with which this lifestyle could spread. Some people just aren’t thrilled at the prospect of working hard to be different. Novelty, it seems, has limited appeal for many.

How Homebrew Computing Clubs Parallel the Early Vegan Movement

Vegan innovators were a group somewhat akin to early computer enthusiasts. At the dawn of the PC era, owning a computer meant learning to program your own machine. It was hard work. For many the rewards were obvious. But for the larger majority, it was too much effort.

But some early computing adopters saw opportunity in this obstacle. Steve Jobs knew the masses balked at the idea of learning to program their own computers. So instead of trying to force them to learn to code, he created computers that did the work for them. His apple computers were embraced by a larger audience of people captivated by the promise of technology, but unwilling to put in a tremendous amount of effort.

Similarly, plant-based companies like Hampton Creek appeal to those interested in eating better, but who aren’t thrilled at the prospect of making their own tofu. Of course, this has frustrated many long-term vegans, who don’t get why people can’t move away from these “starter” foods and onto healthier, more “authentic” vegan fare.

If we want to see widespread adoption of veganism in our lifetimes, we’ll have to be ready to remain agile and capable of responding quickly to new ideas and looking at ways to craft our message in new ways.

I’ve only been vegan for a couple of years, and I’ve already experienced this myself. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think of lab-created meat. I was initially wary (due to concerns about cholesterol, etc.), but I’ve realized the tremendous potentials of this technology (and its scalability) can transform the world.

What about you? Has your vision for the future of veganism changed? Do you consider yourself an early adopter of veganism? Where do you fall on the innovation adoption curve? Are you content to wait for these technologies to become more proven before you’re willing to commit to the idea? Have you been vegan for ages and you’re a bit wary of all these new developments? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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