For years now, Starbucks customers who prefer their coffee with oat, soy or almond milk over cow’s milk — whether because of veganism, lactose-intolerance or other reasons — have also had to swallow surcharges of around 70 cents extra per drink.
While much noise has been made about the practice — including, at various points, by animal-rights group PETA and by vegan Alicia Silverstone, who has called out the coffee giant about the upcharging — there hasn’t been much movement, until now in the U.K.
That’s where, on Dec. 28, the coffee chain announced it would make “all dairy alternatives free” at its 1,020 U.K. locations as of Jan. 5. The announcement came less than three weeks after dairy-free advocate organization Switch4Good pressured the company to drop the fees through its Justice Cup campaign, arguing that doing so would “align with Starbucks’ stated commitment to sustainability,” as “oat milk requires 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water and emits less than one-third of the CO2 emissions” than the production of cow’s milk.
That campaign now continues stateside, pushing Starbucks to drop the nondairy surcharge at its more than 9,000 U.S. locations, where, a Starbucks spokesperson tells Yahoo Life, “a splash” of any plant-based milk in one’s brewed coffee is free, but if it’s “more than a splash, it would be a charge,” similar “to other beverage customizations such as an additional espresso shot or syrup.”
The pressure from Switch4Good included a recent open letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, printed as a half-page ad in the Seattle Times, signed by supporters including Olympic athletes and medical doctors and touting the positive environmental and health benefits of nondairy milk, particularly for the 36 percent of Americans who are lactose intolerant.
On behalf of all people who are lactose intolerant and made sick by dairy, or who support social and environmental justice across the globe, Switch4Good loudly applauds Starbucks’ recent decision to eliminate the extra charge for nondairy beverages in the U.K.,” the letter reads. “This was a bold yet very smart move. You’re doing the right thing for your customers and the planet, considering the severe and unsustainable impact of dairy farming.”
What is plant-based milk, anyway?
Plant-based milk refers to beverages made by processing water with plant ingredients such as legumes (soybeans, peas), nuts (typically almond, pistachio or coconut), grains (oat or rice) or seeds (such as hemp or sunflower) in order to create nondairy alternatives. While they vary greatly in taste and nutritional content — some naturally contain protein, for example, some contain sugar and other additives, and some but not all are fortified, as is dairy milk, with vitamins A and D — all are significantly more ecologically sustainable than dairy milk, using less water (almond milk production uses a lot of water, but still more than 50 percent less than dairy production) and land, and causing less harmful emissions in their production.
But being mindful of the planet is just one reason some people opt for nondairy alternatives, while others, including many vegans, favor plant-based milks because, unlike dairy, they pose no harm to animals.
Still others choose plant-based milk because they’re simply unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. In the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health, about 36 percent of people are lactose-intolerant, a genetic issue that mostly affects people of color — specifically African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinx Americans, as well as Ashkenazi Jews. That’s why the campaign targeting Starbucks also calls the coffee giant out for “dietary racism,” through forcing those who can’t ingest dairy to pay more for an alternative. Others eschew dairy milk for a variety of other health reasons, including allergies.
The plant-based milks offered by Starbucks include soy, coconut and almond, which the company makes its own version of, and oat, which Starbucks serves through its partnership with the brand Oatly. (A spokesperson from Oatly declined to comment on any pricing details for Yahoo Life.)
In the U.S., vegan milk accounts for 35 percent of the total plant-based food market and 15 percent of all dollar sales of retail milk, according to the Good Food Institute, which works to accelerate the innovation of alternative proteins. Dollar sales of plant-based milk, it also reports, have grown 20 percent in the past year and 27 percent over the past two years.