Milk

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 27 dairy milk brands.

We also look at animal rights and the rise of the mega-dairy, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Arla and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying dairy milk:

  • Is it plant based? For some time now, the dairy milk industry has been in crisis with many key stakeholders losing out: farmers, animals and the environment. Opt for a non-dairy milk to avoid the many issues associated with mega-dairies and factory farms.

  • Is it free-range? Cattle are often kept in cramped conditions, artificially inseminated to encourage lactation, and put down at a very young age. Look for free-range or organic milk to address some of these issues, or better still go for a non-dairy milk to avoid them altogether.

  • Is it local? Supermarkets and other big businesses are notorious for treating their farmers poorly. Squeezing prices means that the animals and environment also lose out. Look for a local milk producer wherever possible, but be sure to ask them whether their milk is organic or free-range.

Best Buys

No milk brand is eligible for our Best Buy label because of the inherent animal rights issues connected to dairy farming.

See our guide to plant milks for Best Buy alternatives.

If you do drink dairy milk, we recommend that you seek out local, small-scale, organic and/or free-range milk providers that sell direct to consumers. This map will help you find places to buy milk direct from farms.

Of the more widely available brands, organic milk currently offers the best environmental and animal welfare standards available. 

The following organic brands score well on the table: 

Calon Wen (in Wales and the border counties),  Daylesford (buy online at daylesford.com), Yeo Valley (in supermarkets across the country), Moo Milk (in supermarkets across the country), Graham’s (throughout Scotland).

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying dairy milk:

  • Does it contain GMOs? Cattle are often fed on soya beans, one of the most common GMO crops. Genetically modified seeds bind growers to powerful and exploitative multinationals producing agricultural chemicals. Look for organic to be sure that you are avoiding GMOs.

  • Is it factory farming? Factory farms and mega-dairies are known for their cruel treatment of animals and their environmental unsustainability. Look for free-range or organic milk to address some of these issues, or better still go for a non-dairy milk to avoid them altogether.

  • Is it dairy milk? Dairy farming has inherent animal rights issues that cannot be avoided, and is currently extremely unsustainable environmentally. Go for a plant based milk instead to cut down you ethical footprint. 

Companies to avoid

Supermarkets have been criticised for squeezing their milk suppliers, paying lower and lower prices that sometimes don't even cover production costs. We would recommend avoiding own-brand milk from the supermarkets that scored poorly in our table:

  • Asda
  • Tesco
  • Sainbury's
  • Morrisons

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Calon Wen Organic Milk

Company Profile: Calon Wen Dairy Produce
15

Daylesford Organic Milk [O]

Company Profile: Daylesford Organic
13.5

Yeo Valley Organic Milk [O]

Company Profile: Yeo Valley Farms (Production) Ltd
13.5

Moo Milk [O]

Company Profile: Crediton Dairies
10.5

Grahams Organic Milk [O]

Company Profile: Graham's Dairies
10

Bowland Milk

Company Profile: Connect Plus
9.5

Cymru milk

Company Profile: Medina Dairy Ltd
9.5

Dairy Pride Milk

Company Profile: Crediton Dairies
9.5

Freshways milk

Company Profile: FRESHWAYS
9.5

Watsons Milk

Company Profile: Medina Dairy Ltd
9.5

Dale Farm Milk

Company Profile: Dale Farm Ltd
9

Delamere goat & cows Milk

Company Profile: Delamere Dairy Holdings
9

Graham's Milk

Company Profile: Graham's Dairies
9

St Helens Goat Milk

Company Profile: St Helens Farm
9

Arla Free Range Milk [O]

Company Profile: Arla Foods amba
7.5

Muller milk

Company Profile: MULLER DAIRY (U.K.) LIMITED
7.5

Puriti milk

Company Profile: MULLER DAIRY (U.K.) LIMITED
7.5

The One milk

Company Profile: MULLER DAIRY (U.K.) LIMITED
7.5

Waitrose Duchy Organic Milk [O]

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
7.5

Arla Milk

Company Profile: Arla Foods amba
6.5

Cravendale milk

Company Profile: Arla Foods amba
6.5

Lactofree milk

Company Profile: Arla Foods amba
6.5

Co-op organic milk [O]

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
6

Marks and Spencers milk [O]

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
6

Co-op milk

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
5

Marks and Spencer milk

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
5

Booths milk

Company Profile: EH Booth & Co Ltd
4

Rachels Organic Milk [O]

Company Profile: Rachel's Dairy Ltd
3.5

Sainsbury's organic milk

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
3.5

Waitrose milk

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
3.5

Aldi milk

Company Profile: ALDI SOUTH Group
3

Lidl milk

Company Profile: Lidl UK GmbH
3

Morrisons organic milk [O]

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
3

Sainsbury's milk

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
2.5

Morrisons milk

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Tesco milk [O]

Company Profile: Tesco plc
2

Tesco milk

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1

Asda milk [O]

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0.5

Asda milk

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Milk is a staple for most people in the UK and yet, for some time now, the milk industry has been in crisis with many key stakeholders losing out: farmers, animals and the environment.

This is perhaps symbolised by the two-thirds of dairy farmers that have gone out of business over the past 20 years and the fact that we continue to lose, on average, one farmer per week at a time when the UK runs at a dairy trade deficit (in 2016, we imported £1.3 billion more in dairy products than we exported.)

Needless to say, large farms, milk processors and supermarkets appear best set to survive these challenges and the further uncertainties posed by Brexit negotiations, “enjoying economies of scale and investing millions of pounds in hyper-efficient systems”. In 2016, supermarket own-label brands represented 73% of the milk market by value and 81% by volume.[1]

Milk Price Wars

In June 2017, the UK average farm-gate milk price was 26.75p per litre compared to an average of 32p per litre for the cost of production for a high-standard conventional dairy farm.

In response to these unfair prices, a number of protests and actions against supermarkets and dairy processors have occurred over the years, with milk buyers being accused of forcing further price cuts on farmers when liquid milk prices were already below the cost of production.

For example, in August 2015, dairy farmers called for a boycott of Morrison’s, Aldi, Lidl and Asda as milk processors cut prices further. Protests and direct actions involving ‘trolley dashes’ and live cows were held outside supermarket distribution centres and in stores – attracting media attention.

“Many shoppers see milk price cuts as disadvantaging farmers and are consequently prepared to boycott milk from a supermarket seen to be undertaking these,” reads a 2016 Mintel market report on the dairy industry.

This raised public concern over farmers’ pay and appears to have encouraged an industry response, with some companies treatment of farmers.

Morrisons and Arla have launched farmers’ milk ranges over the last couple of years, with products detailing how many pence-per-bottle goes to the farmer. The Free Range Dairy Network launched a ‘Free Range Dairy Farmers Milk’ range at Asda in March 2017 and The Free Range Marketing Board launched the ‘Enjoy Milk’ brand in January 2017. ‘Enjoy Milk’ costs 25% more than the average supermarket own-brand milk, with the extra money going to farmers.

Of the supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, Co-op and Sainsbury’s are reported to have dedicated suppliers who are paid the cost of production – 32.41p per litre.

The rise of the mega-dairy

Mega-dairies present themselves as one controversial technique for surviving low milk prices. In 2015, there were approximately 20 American-style factory dairies in the UK which kept herds of 700+ cows inside all year round, and 50 smaller ‘confinement units’ where animals were fed from troughs rather than in open fields. More recent data could not be found.

Mega-dairies have long been criticised by campaign groups for leading us further down the path of dairy intensification and, in doing so, pushing even more traditional and small-scale farms out of business. Their animal welfare standards are criticised and they present an environmental pollution risk through handling concentrated slurry. In June 2017, for example, an 1800-cow operation in Wales was fined £45,000 for the contamination of the local waterway.

Compassion in World Farming continues to run a campaign against mega-dairies following its success in halting plans for a 3,700-cow zero-grazing farm in Lincolnshire by Nocton Dairies in February 2011.

Environmental Impact of Milk

Climate change 

Globally, dairy production accounted for 2.8 percent of all man-made climate-warming gases in 2005 (the last reliable set of stats) and this figure is likely to rise as demand from China and India is on the increase.

The main greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted from dairy farming are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced in the rumen (one of  a cow’s four stomachs) and is released mainly through burping.  Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is emitted when urine, faeces and fertilisers are broken down by microbes in the soil. Methane is 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as potent.[2]

Additional GHG emissions come from feed production, milk processing and transportation. 

Slurry

A long-term trend of increasing pollution incidents from farming has been identified by the Environmental Agency, with slurry from dairy farms being a common offender.

A Bureau of Investigative Journalism report claims that 424 ‘serious pollution incidents’ were recorded from pig, poultry and dairy farms between 2010 and 2016, having a potentially major impact on the environment.

Its “Dirty Business: the livestock farms polluting the UK” report describes some farmers acting as ‘repeat offenders’ and treating the pollution fines they receive as part of routine running costs. What’s more, some of the farms linked to serious pollution incidents or poor environmental management received millions of pounds in government subsidies in 2015 and 2016.

Incidents were reported to be commonly caused from the “storage, handling and spreading of waste”, due to “lack of investment in infrastructure” or “inadequate planning and management of these substances”.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and The Co-op were supplied by companies operating farms linked to serious incidents and two other incidents were linked to an intensive farm – Pawton Dairy – that supplies Arla Foods, who in turn supplies The Co-op. All companies mentioned in the report lose half a mark under Ethical Consumer’s Pollution and Toxics category, as do other companies linked to pollution incidences. 

Animal welfare

Dairy farming has inherent animal welfare issues that boil down to the simple fact that, if you want a continuous supply of milk, you need to keep female cows in a perpetual cycle of pregnancy and birth to encourage lactation.

This results in cows being impregnated every year and newborn calves being removed shortly after birth. Male calves don’t have a role in this dairy system and so are often sent for slaughter for veal, or raised for beef, or shot. Female calves are raised for milk production.

To enable a constant supply of milk, female cows are artificially inseminated two to three months after giving birth and therefore produce milk whilst raising a calf inside. This inevitably takes its toll, and many cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, shortly after their fifth birthday. If a cow produces less milk, becomes infertile or becomes ill or injured they may also be slaughtered for cheap beef.

To ensure high yields, cows have been selectively bred for dairy farming and can now produce six to ten times (20-45 litres) what they naturally would for a calf. This can have health implications which include difficulties in moving, and calcium deficiencies which may lead to ‘milk fever’. When coupled with reduced pasture time or zero grazing (no time outdoors), it’s not surprising that dairy cows commonly suffer from Mastitis (an infection of the udder) and lameness (a foot infection).

Because of these inherent issues all companies offering dairy products are marked down under Ethical Consumer’s Animal Rights category – as highlighted in the score table above. 

Where we differentiate between best animal welfare practice is under the Factory Farming, Product Sustainability, and Company Ethos categories. 

If a company offers only Organic or Free-Range milk it will not be marked down under the Factory Farming category and will gain a positive Company Ethos mark. This includes Calon Wen, Daylesford and Yeo Valley. 

If a company offers an organic product (look for the [O] on the score table), it will gain a positive Product Sustainability mark.

Welfare assurance schemes

Concern around animal welfare issues has led to a number of welfare assurance schemes emerging in the UK.

Organic standards for milk can vary between different certification bodies but common requirements include:

  • Cows should be grazed outside for most of the year (however no guaranteed minimum number of days is specified).
  • Cows should be allowed a minimum space of six metres squared per animal.
  • The minimum weaning age for calves is 12 weeks.
  • The routine use of antibiotics is prohibited.
  • Artificial pesticides cannot be used on the land.
  • No use of GM feed.
Image: Pasture for Life milk certification

Pasture for Life

Pasture for Life ensures that dairy products have come from animals that “have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or conserved pasture throughout their lives.”

It prohibits the use of soya as an animal feed. 

Image: Pasture Promise free-range certification

Pasture Promise

There are currently no laws in place to define free-range milk production, but the Free Range Dairynetwork asks its farmers to commit to grazing their cows outside for 180 days and nights a year.

In June 2017, 43 Co-op stores across Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcester and Oxfordshire were stocking Free Range Dairy Pasture Promise milk.

Image: Red Tractor Certification standard

The Red Tractor Standard

The Red Tractor Standard on products essentially means that the milk was produced on a UK farm which met the national Assured Food Standards – simply the UK legal minimum.

Image: RSPCA assured certification milk

RSPCA Assured

RSPCA Assured milk guarantees little more than legal minimum standards for cows.

For example, outdoor grazing is encouraged but not compulsory; calves may be taken away from mothers shortly after birth; and the fate of male calves is not currently tackled by this scheme.

Small-scale dairy farmers

 Jyoti Fernandes from the Landworkers’ Alliance discusses alternative dairy farmers in the UK and the urgent need for dairy reform

Milk is a very special liquid, requiring an abundance of land, the hard work of farmers and the generosity of cows to produce it. Yet so many consumers expect it to be cheaper than a pint of beer or even a bottle of water.

Consumer demand for cheap milk has resulted in a need for economies of scale in the dairy industry that has driven the ethics of dairy production down. The governments’ relentless push for the dairy sector to enter the global market propels farmers into competition, with animals reared to lower standards in order to keep prices down. This means that herds get bigger, milkers get more stressed out, and cows are bred to produce far beyond a level that is healthy and stress free for them.

Cheap prices also mean that farms can’t afford to hire more employees to help out, so farmers are tired and stretched in their capacity to look after their animals, which of course, has an effect on animal welfare.

I am a small-scale dairy farmer based in Dorset and work for the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) – a union of small-scale producers and family farmers. I’ve been keeping cows for the last 15 years so that my family and local customers can have milk and cheese that we feel happy about.

I did not want to become a vegan because I love milk and also believe that cows and goats play an important role in maintaining our pastoral grassland ecosystems and beautiful, productive countryside. I earn money from my cows by making higher-value products like cheese and yoghurt to sell.

Along with other farmers who care deeply about our animals and the land, we believe that the whole dairy system needs urgent reform to allow everyone to have access to more humane and sustainable choices about their milk.

Sustainable systems

There are many other ‘alternative’ dairy farmers, like myself, who get a fair price for milk by selling directly to the consumer using a wide variety of production methods designed to create systems that work in co-operation with animals, nature and wider sustainability issues.

Vegetarian farms

The Ahimsa Dairy Foundation, sell milk from a system where no animals are slaughtered. All dairy production comes from animals who need to have a calf or a kid to start lactation, but the Ahimsa milk producers keep all of their calves and raise the males for training for work and the females as future milk producers.

Keeping the females

Some producers choose to leave the calves with their mothers until they are slowly weaned, then send the male calves or kids off for meat, while keeping the females. An amazing dairy using this system is The Calf at Foot dairy.

Direct delivery

Some farms, like North Aston Dairy, deliver their milk straight to the doorstep, so are able to ensure a fair price for their milk which covers the costs of maintaining high welfare. There are some Community Supported Farms, like Chagfarm, 

Chagfarm, that also work directly with local communities, sharing the economic risks of producing their high-welfare goat milk.

Sustainable feed

To encompass concerns about the sustainability of imported feed, many producers choose to feed their cows on grass and Lucerne (a type of alfalfa). The Pasture Fed Livestock Association, 

Pasture for Life, has a list of suppliers who feed their animals entirely on feed – mostly grass – from the UK.

Small scale, high standards

These creative farmers push the boundaries for the most ethical milk available but, in reality, most small-scale family dairy farms have very high standards for their animals. Almost all of the small-scale dairy farmers I know care deeply about their cows. Small-scale dairy farms need reliable support from ‘consumers who care’ to stay viable.

More than consumption

Beyond supporting better choices with your consumer power, you can also support campaigns for better government policy on dairy. Both consumers and farmers need to resist our government policy to create more intensive mega-dairies and globalise the dairy industry.

You can join the LWA as a supporter member for example.

Farmers for Action have been campaigning for the dairy processors and supermarkets to pay them a fair price for their milk, so they don’t have to get themselves into this race to the bottom.

Company behind the brand

Arla supplies the UK with 25% of its milk and, although it claims to be the world’s largest producer of organic dairy products, it only released it first branded organic milk product in the UK in 2016. The company is co-operatively owned by more than 12,700 farmers across Europe and therefore receives a positive Company Ethos mark.

As the Controversial Technology column in the score table highlights, most companies lose at least half a mark under that category for the likely use of animal feed containing GM soya. Arla has made some progress in this area, stating:

“All soy fed to cows at Arla farms is either organic, ProTerra-certified, RTRS-certified or covered by RTRS certificates.”

WWF also placed Arla as a Frontrunner in their latest soy score card ranking. However, RTRS certification does not exclude GM soya

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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References

  1. Added value in dairy drinks, milk and cream. UK May 2017, Mintel
  2. Understanding greenhouse gas emissions - US EPA