Last updated: October 2017
Finding alternatives to animal milk has never been so easy. A wide range of plant milks are now available in both supermarkets and wholefood shops, with almond and coconut milk experiencing the biggest growth in popularity in 2016.
Soya, almond, coconut, hazelnut, oat, cashew, rice, hemp, quinoa and various combinations are just some of the options you can now choose from.
The Ethics of Milk
Plant derived milks may be an important vegan alternative to dairy milks but are they sustainable? This question is hard to answer as there is little reliable information on the environmental and social impacts different plant milks have compared to dairy, let alone a comparative study of the environmental and social impacts of different plant milks.
We summarise the key ethical issues that have been raised for four widely available milks: soya, coconut, almond and rice.
Soya has faced criticism for many years over its role in deforesting the Amazon and converting more land for GM production globally. However, soya milk drinkers have never been the leading cause of these issues – most of the world’s soya is fed to animals; only 6% of it is eaten or drank directly by people.
As highlighted in our Soya feature, if grown well, soya could be an environmentalist’s best friend. It can produce more protein per land area than any other major crop. It is reported to use approximately 28% of the amount of water used for dairy production; it can be grown on former pasture or abandoned land without cutting a single tree down; and it is nutritionally most similar to cows milk compared to other plant milk options.
The key challenge is ensuring that soya is produced in a way that realises its environmental credentials.
The Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and ProTerra
We have, therefore, looked into the soya and GM policies of all plant milk brands to help highlight those using ‘sustainable’ soya. In doing so, two key schemes are often referred to: the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and ProTerra-certified.
Both schemes have faced criticism from campaign groups as they only demand that soya production meets basic environmental and labour standards, and neither address soya’s indirect impacts (cattle ranchers selling their land to soya farmers and moving into virgin forest themselves, for example).
The key difference between the two schemes is that ProTerra ensures that no GM is used, and when you buy ProTerra certified soya, it is guaranteed to be the same soya that received the certification. In contrast, the RTRS does not exclude GM soya and allows some certification credits to be bought and sold separately from the soya that received the certification.
Avoiding soya sourced from South America, and seeking out certified organic soya are the best options for ethically minded consumers. Of the Best Buys, Plamil and The Bridge both meet these standards. The organic soya milks offered by Sunrise and Sojade are also made from organic beans sourced outside of South America.
Coconuts are commonly grown without the use of pesticides, and can be sourced from existing coconut groves. However, the rise in popularity of coconuts does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with improving wages and workers’ rights. Increasing demand may lead to plantation expansion and the creation of new coconut groves – potentially at the detriment to pristine habitat.
Nora Pittenger from Fair Trade USA names the following as the main ethical issues with coconut production currently:
- Extreme Poverty: coconut farmers are the poorest of the poor in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, threatening the sustainability of coconut farming as a livelihood.
- Unfavourable prices: given that small plots of land are farmed, coconut farmers average about one dollar a day throughout the year.
- Low yields and productivity: particularly as coconut trees age, their inefficiency makes the cost of maintaining and harvesting coconuts high.
- Mono-crop farming: coconut is mainly grown as a mono-crop, fostering an environment of low crop diversity that can be detrimental to the environment and risky for farmers.
Lucy Bee is the only company selling a fair trade coconut milk. They say:
"Our Coconut Milk is from the Philippines and is certified Fair Trade by Fair Trade Sustainability Alliance (FairTSA). This means:
- No monkeys are used to pick the coconuts used in this milk
- Funds to feed undernourished children
- Support for coconut planting
- Education at all levels
- No exploitation of workers
- Sustainable community projects
A lack of many fair trade coconut milks may be due to the market growing quickly, or the historical roots and focus of the fair trade movement on cocoa, coffee and tea. Either way, there is a clear need for pressure to be put on companies to ensure coconut producers are being paid a fair wage.
For more information on this issue see: The Power of Coconut, a feature by Fairtrade USA.
To make 4.5 litres of almond milk requires approximately 4,182 litres of water – more than other plant milks. When this is placed in context of a rising demand for almond milk, and with more than 80% of the world’s almonds coming from drought-stricken California, almond’s ethical credentials become questionable. Over-pumping of aquifers to irrigate almond plantations is reported to have caused land subsidence in California, potentially threatening infrastructure such as roads, bridges etc.
In addition, overworking honey bees in California’s almond groves was highlighted in Markus Imhoof’s film ‘More Than Honey’. Approximately 1.6 million beehives are said to be brought into California each year to support pollination, and as the area is “dripping with insecticides” a lot of bees have suffered.11 Tom Philpott reports that “during the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15% and 25% of beehives suffered “severe” damage, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood.”
For the reasons listed above, only organic almond milk should be sought and drunk in moderation.
The Bridge (a Best Buy), Rude Health and EcoMil offer organic almond milk. Dream also has an organic almond/ hazelnut milk.
It takes about 554.6 litres of water to grow the rice needed to make 4.5 litres of rice milk.13 In addition, rice paddies globally are responsible for more than 1.2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and at least 10% of agricultural emissions.14 Ethical Consumer’s guide to rice advised reducing our intake of rice and replacing it with more local and lower-carbon staples.
Because of the above issues, we advise avoiding rice milk.
Which milk is best of them all?
As no independent academic studies have been conducted that directly compare the environmental and social impacts of all the different plant milks, including oat and hemp milk, it is hard to provide a clear answer to this question. Until such a study arises, responding to the issues raised by campaign groups seems the best way forward. Going with the recommendations above and looking for other organic milks is one way to navigate the ethical issues.
For example, The Bridge (Best Buy) offers a range of organic milks, including oat, quinoa, buckwheat, spelt and kamut.
Large companies such as the supermarkets, Holland & Barrett and Group Danone are found at the bottom of the Plant Milk score table. All offer a range of uncertified animal products alongside their vegan milk ranges, resulting in them losing full marks under the Animal Rights and Factory Farming categories.
The smaller vegan and vegetarian companies float to the top of the Plant Milk ratings, with Plamil Foods and The Bridge coming out top. Buying vegan milk from these vegan companies is advised if Animal Rights are driving your purchasing choices.
Who makes what
Making your own plant milk
As many plant milk drinkers will be aware, Tetra Paks are the most common form of packaging for dairy milk alternatives. Although recyclable, the materials needed to make Tetra Paks’ layered structure paperboard (made from wood), polyethylene (a type of plastic) and aluminium – could be considered a waste of resources.
One way to reduce Tetra Pak usage is to make your own milk and store it in a reusable glass bottle. We therefore asked for your advice and experience of making your own plant milks. We list some responses below.
“I no longer buy commercially produced plant milks. I make my own oat milk which is creamy and goes very well in hot drinks as well as breakfast cereals. Here is the recipe. It is very easy:
- Soak one cup of oats in water for at least 15 mins or overnight.
- Drain water.
- Blend oats in blender with 3 cups water, a pinch of salt and a little vanilla essence.
- If you want a sweetened version, add a couple of dates.
- Strain through a sieve (a normal sieve used for baking is fine).
And that’s it! The remaining oats can be used in pancakes, porridge, smoothies etc. So nothing is wasted. I have reduced packaging by doing this. I buy the oats in bulk and store them in a large container. I keep the finished oat milk in my fridge in a glass milk bottle-style screw top jar.”
Vic from London
“I started to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle in March this year, so purchasing tetra-packed soya milk had to stop.
I didn’t want to go down the route of the ‘ultra-homemaker’ and so didn’t even consider making my own soymilk as it’s quite labour intensive, but instead have switched to homemade cashew milk.
I choose cashews over other nuts mostly due to price, but also hazels and almonds have a more distinctive flavour and are not really what I want in a cup of tea ...!
I buy cashews unpackaged – there are three semi-local shops close to me where I can buy them loose by weight. Depending on the price, I switch between organic and non-organic.
I’ve followed the simple recipe I found online which makes 700 ml milk (enough to store in an old gin bottle in the fridge door): 3/4 cup cashews and just under 3 cups of water. Sometimes I add some salt but it doesn’t make much of a difference to the end taste.
Best tip I can offer – don’t soak the cashews too long: they pulverise into creamy milk with minimal residue after straining if you soak for between 3-4 hours – overnight soaking yields a granier result with more large bits in the residue. Less is more when it comes to soaking – beans too!
I strain through a nylon nut milk bag which I think will last forever.”
“I’ve been making my own for a few years now using a Chufa milk maker. It’s a lot less hassle than making and straining through a paint straining bag which I used to do.
For nut milks the price difference is more or less nothing in comparison to buying Tetra Paks but obviously you have the pulp left over to use. For cheaper ingredients like oats or rice the milk costs more or less nothing and the costs of the Chufa milk maker is quickly recouped.
We’re a family of six vegans so we can get through a reasonable amount of plant milk so it’s not 100% of our milk consumption but it has certainly significantly reduced the amount of Tetra Paks that we get through.”
Note: homemade plant milks do not contain added vitamins like commercially produced ones. So you will need to ensure you are getting those vitamins from other sources – including a balanced and healthy diet.
Company behind the brand
Danone completed its acquisition of WhiteWave, the owner of the Alpro brand, earlier this year. In doing so, Alpro is now owned by a company that is the focus of a campaign run by Baby Milk Action (BMA) – the DanoNO campaign. BMA claims that “Danone is stepping up its targeting of health workers and the public around the world, in violation of international baby milk marketing standards”. It is calling on campaigners to expose Danone’s controversial practices.
Regarding Animal Rights, Danone scores a worst under all relevant Ethical Consumer categories. For example, it conducts tests on animals “in order to ensure the safety and efficacy of new products” and does not provide a cut-off date for ending all animal testing.
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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