Should you charge for plant-based milks?

19 January 2023
Should you charge for plant-based milks?

You can encourage take-up of dairy alternatives by making them free, but are they always the sustainable choice, asks Shane Kavanagh

Plant-based milk consumption has seen huge growth over recent years. Reasons for this growth range from perception of health benefits to ethical considerations over how dairy products are produced and farmed.

Sustainability is also becoming a major consideration, with people opting for alternative milks to minimise their impact on the environment. On the whole, plant-based milks use less water, less land and generate lower amounts of greenhouse gases but, as always with sustainability, the situation is complex.

In hospitality we are in the business of offering people great experiences, and at Benugo we don't believe it's our place to tell guests what to do or choose. However, we hope that being totally transparent with our customers on the carbon cost of our hot drinks will help them make an informed choice to reduce the carbon emissions associated with each cup of coffee.

Benugo has offered plant-based milks for many years but, given their higher cost over dairy, they were historically charged for – in line with much of the market. In 2019 we made plant-based milks free across all of our high street stores and as a result saw a steady growth in sales.

During the pandemic, we used our time to work on projects that might begin to turn the dial in terms of minimising our impact on the environment and one major output of this was our carbon-neutral coffee project. We partnered with sustainability consultancy ClimatePartner to carry out a detailed life cycle analysis on everything associated with our coffee and this resulted in our carbon-neutral coffee menu, where hot drinks are priced not just in terms of cash, but also in terms of carbon cost, with all resulting emissions offset into certified projects across the coffee belt.

The menu clearly illustrates the greater carbon impact of dairy versus plant-based milks, and led to us deciding to make all plant-based milks free across the business. As a result, sales of dairy alternatives have increased tenfold in 2022 versus 2019, although they remain 16.9% of our total milk usage, so there is clearly room for further growth. A recent study from Bristol University highlights how eco-friendly labelling on products leads to customers making positive choices and we've certainly seen evidence of that.

However, sustainability is complicated. While almond milk has a relatively low carbon impact (0.18kg CO2 versus 0.41kg CO2 for the equivalent dairy drink), some studies show that it uses 20 times the amount of fresh water compared to dairy milk, and stories of large volumes of pesticides and desertification in California are concerning.

Oat milk has become the market-leading plant-based milk, and although oat milk has excellent credentials in terms of carbon emissions and water use, it is often produced in high volume and grown repeatedly in the same fields, potentially fuelling the biodiversity crisis.

So is dairy milk always bad? It is clearly a complicated and emotive topic for many, as seen in the animal rebellion ‘milk pour' protests in supermarkets across the UK. Dairy milk certainly has a significant environmental impact, but milk produced pastorally from organic or regeneratively farmed sources has better sustainability credentials – it may be that it is our need to industrialise production that causes many of the major sustainability impacts we see. Benugo's approach has been to share as much information as we can with guests and allow them to make the choice. Removing price as a barrier definitely drives uptake of plant-based milks and there is no doubt they have a lower carbon impact than dairy milks, but diversity of choice and availability of ingredients across supply chains in hospitality remains critical.

Shane Kavanagh is the commercial director at Benugo

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