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What’s in Your Latte: Examining Greenwashing in Plant Milks

Plant-based milk has been adopted into the diets of Americans, along with nearly every coffee shop and health-food store. Initially advertised as a dairy substitute for the lactose-intolerant population, they have come to symbolize everything wrong with the current dairy industry and the ethical and ecological benefits of a vegan diet. This rise in the popularity of plant milk can be attributed to the publicizing of their environmental friendliness, placing the responsibility for systemic issues ingrained in our food system upon the consumer. Also known as greenwashing, these vague and oftentimes false labels of “100% sustainable” or “environmentally friendly” are used as a marketing tactic to mislead customers.



One of the most widely used plant milk options is almond milk, which rose to popularity as consumers turned away from dairy products in the early-mid 2010s. In 2013, it surpassed soy milk as the most sold variation of plant-based milk in America—cementing the important role of plant-based milk in everyday life and cultivating a cultural pressure to consume them. Almond milk produces the least greenhouse gasses per unit of any type of milk, due to the fact that the complex root systems of almond orchards have the ability to store and sequester carbon dioxide.


However, almonds require both a large amount of water and lots of bees. “According to one study, it takes three gallons (4.5 liters) to grow just one California almond,” National Geographic reported in 2022, and most almonds are grown in the drought-prone state of California—creating doubts as to whether almond milk is actually that beneficial for the environment in comparison to cow’s milk.



Another milk at the forefront of the plant-based milk movement is oat milk. “No plant-based milk has been hotter than oat milk” an Eater article argues, and oat milk’s popularity can be attributed to the leading brand: Oatly. As the ecological downsides of almond milk were brought to light, Oatly stepped in to capitalize on the idea that their oat milk required significantly less water than almond milk. Quickly, Oatly products were stocked in chain coffee shops (including Starbucks), serving as an example of how this supposed solution perpetuates the characteristic of extreme consolidation within our food systems.


Additionally, it was discovered that the company received a large investment by Blackstone in 2020 — a large investment firm managed by a major Trump donor that has also been accused of causing deforestation in the Amazon. This is an example of the “revolving door” phenomenon, where employees in the corporate world also hold influence in politics. Furthermore, it was discovered in 2021 that the company had used environmental claims with no real evidence in its advertisements, resulting in their ads being banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.


In addition, oats are predominantly grown in large-scale monoculture operations. Although most of these fields are produced  for livestock rather than for milk, this farming method still causes the soil to be depleted of its complex mycorrhizal fungi networks and nutrients such as nitrogen, and decreases its ability to sequester carbon — ultimately resulting in more greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere and making the production of oat milk ecologically extractive.



In all, plant-based milks are not inherently the issue—as evidence has shown many of these milks by far pose the least amount of environmental and ethical obstructions when compared to cow’s milk. However, it’s crucial to ensure plant-based milk companies have good incentives and verifiable environmental claims. As of the present moment, we should be cautious of blindly accepting plant-based milk as our ultimate solution, as no type of milk is truly perfect.


Sources:

Sundberg, Emily. “Whole Milk Mounts Its Triumphant Comeback: ‘Hot Girls Are Ditching the Alternatives and Are Going Back to Basics.’” Grub Street, Grub Street, 23 Aug. 2021, www.grubstreet.com/2021/08/whole-milk-is-back.html?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=s1&utm_campaign=nym.

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