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Dairy vs plant-based milk guide: What is the most ecological option?

Dairy

Let’s start with the traditional option of dairy milk. While it’s still the most widely available option in most stores and cafes, there are now plenty of alternatives, so should you switch?


A poster promoting Veganuary stating that animal welfare is a lrge motivating factor for many people taking part.
Source: Veganuary

In their guide to dairy milk, Ethical Consumer stated that “no dairy milk brand is eligible for our Best Buy label because of the inherent animal rights issues and ecological footprint connected to industrial dairy farming” with a recommendation “that you stop buying, or greatly reduce the amount of dairy milk you drink" and if you do buy dairy then "seek out local, small-scale, organic and pasture-fed milk providers that sell directly to customers while asking about their approach to animal welfare and land management”.


So while they do in the guide point in the direction of some of these brands, it could mean that there are other better options close to you. In North England, they say to look out for Acorn, whereas, in Wales and the border counties, Calon Wen is the one to look out for.


Side note: I specifically mention Calon Wen as they are the brand of butter we sell, and while produced in Wales, we actually buy this from a supplier who already delivers large pallets of stock to us once every few weeks. So, as with most products we stock, there are many factors to consider and a trade-off is normally made on something, but actually getting this product delivered on a truck already coming to us can actually reduce some food miles (and carbon footprint) and offer a high-quality product.


Some points to consider with dairy milk and reasons to avoid it

A diagram outlining the life for cows on a dairy farm that explains the process of producing dairy milk
Click to expand. Source: Veganuary

Is the product “factory farmed”? Limited or zero access to grazing has sadly become commonplace within the dairy industry, meaning restricted access for the cows to the outdoors and pasture areas, which leads to animal welfare and even environmental implications.


Supermarkets' own-brand milk should be outright avoided (even if they do check those boxes of organic and local produce) due to wide criticism for paying milk suppliers low prices that sometimes don’t even cover the cost of production.


A diagram showing the resources needed to produce different types of milk comparing dairy with a much higher useage against various plant milks, all with lower requirements.
Source: Veganuary

Could you avoid dairy milk going forward? With its inherent animal rights issues and the undeniable fact that dairy has a larger carbon footprint and environmental impact compared to all plant milks, could you simply swap it for plant-based option?


As is clear from this diagram comparing different kinds of milk, dairy uses a vast amount more resources and produces way higher emissions than any type of plant-based milk. This is because the cows are the inefficient "middleman" in the process that turns the feed into milk, whereas, plant-based milk can take the base resource and turn it directly into the final product.

 

We highly recommend reading the full guide by Ethical Consumer to learn more about specific points as to why they come to the conclusion and recommend a move away from dairy.


A glass bottle of milk pouring into a drinking glass

Plant-based Alternatives


So if dairy is a no-no then where should you turn? Well, this can be tricky based on a number of factors, but replacing it with a thoughtfully chosen sustainable plant-based alternative is taking a step in the right direction for the planet and animal welfare.


What to consider when choosing a plant-based alternative

You should look closely at the available brands to make sure that it is committed to supporting the vegan lifestyle. Some brands that are solely focused on the production of plant milk are still owned by larger corporations that have faced criticism over the manufacturing of the products such as water usage leading to ecological demise.


A graph showing world almond production in 2012 to 12013 showing that California has an 82% figure, EU 6%, Australia 5%, Turkey 2% and Others 5%

A factor to consider is what plant is used to make the product, As can be seen in the diagram from earlier, almonds use a large amount of water to grow which has to be factored into the final product. Also, given that up to as much as 80% of all almonds produced are from California alone, and the rest only in other certain parts of the world, it is likely that the final product will incur higher food miles to reach the consumer, especially in the UK and much of Europe.


Another point that is important to think about with plant milk is its packaging. It is common that many plant milk products have moved away from traditional glass bottles meaning that a case such as dairy milk in a returnable and reused glass bottle, could be the better ecological option (if you leave animal

welfare out of the equation) compared to a plastic bottle of almond milk. However, it is an overall case of

A nature scene of a river with large amounts of waste on the bank of the river

weighing up the pros and cons of circumstances which includes the proximity to the production of the product, availability of recycling collections, if the materials will ever actually reach a recycling facility rather than landfill or incineration, is the material processed and meaningfully repurposed, and so on.


Finally, Ethical Consumer advises avoiding any plant milk made from non-organic almonds due to the widespread use of pesticides, but also soya milk from South American produce (which is common in many supermarket own-brand products) due to deforestation that takes place to grow soya beans, so there are still downfalls to plant-based alternatives out there and it's not a simple matter of making a switch.


Ethical Consumer’s extensive guide to vegan and plant milks goes into much more detail of the ins and out of their recommendations and is well worth a read if only to get things straight for yourself.

 

Obviously, we place a large emphasis on the removal of what we believe to be unnecessary packaging for the products that we sell, so given all of the information above, we are very happy to be able to offer a package-free solution with an oat-based product. This means that you are able to cut out any concerns about the packaging once you have emptied your container, and also as oats are a readily available ingredient in the UK, then this ensures that the carbon footprint and food miles of the product are kept to a minimum too.

An image of the Minor Figures Oat Milk dispenser in The Bare Alternative shop with a statement of how many TetraPaks have been saved by offering package-free refills.

Of course, as with all refills that we sell, this way of shopping doesn't simply remove all packaging in the supply chain as it still needs to make its way to our shop first, but given the system in place with this product, the reduction in resources and carbon footprint is greatly reduced. We have previously written in more detail about this system and how in just the first six months of offering oat milk refills we were able to create a reduction in the manufacturing, transporting and recycling of 1800 TetraPaks. At the time of writing this post, we have now had the dispenser for nearly two years. With sales of over 4500 litres of refills, if all of this was instead bought in TetraPaks then this would increase that saving of 1800 to at least 4500 cartons,

 

We hope that this guide has been insightful and you have learned and have something to take away from it. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below and for any other topics that we could cover to produce a similar guide with the aim of shining a light on some of those other grey areas of conscious and ethical shopping habits while looking out for the planet, it's people and the ecology of the others we share it with.

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