Many of us on a plant-based diet have run into the same inconvenience: you might be grabbing a morning cup of joe from a coffee shop, and are being charged extra for your non-dairy milk or creamer. Lots of activists have raised the issue of sustainable, cruelty-free options being more expensive than their harmful, animal-based counterparts. I even voiced my concerns on the topic of Starbucks’ lack of sustainable practices a few years ago on Twitter. This price discrepancy makes it hard for the environmentally-friendly option to be accessible to everyone.
Most recently, actor and activist Alan Cumming has added his voice to the many who are calling for sustainable and cost-friendly options with a powerful letter he sent to Starbucks Canada’s Senior Vice President, urging them to drop the extra charges for vegan milk.
Cumming wrote, “As a vegan and an honorary director of PETA, I was heartened to read that Starbucks will expand its vegan menu to meet the increasing demand for plant-based food and to work toward its sustainability commitment. However, there is one simple action that Starbucks could take right now to show that it’s serious about cutting its carbon emissions and reducing waste: Stop charging customers more for choosing environmentally and animal-friendly vegan milk.”
“If Starbucks really wants to help the planet, it must do more than just talk about its goals,” he wrote. “It’s time to take action. The secretary-general of the United Nations has urged world leaders to declare a ‘climate emergency,’ and President Biden has signed an executive order for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.
“As you know, greenhouse gases are released at nearly every stage of milk production, and manure from dairy farms contaminates our waterways and creates dead zones in the oceans where no life can survive.
“The most responsible move would be to stop selling cow’s milk altogether,” Cumming said, “but at the very least, Starbucks can — and must end the vegan milk upcharge.”
These charges may seem small, but they penalize customers who are making humane and environmentally-friendly choices. It also penalizes people for issues they can’t control, like being lactose intolerant—which affects 65 percent of the population, predominantly people of color.
In response to the pandemic, many companies are attempting to become a greater force for good in the world, and people want to support responsible businesses that are making a genuine effort to combat climate change.
This appeal comes just after CEO Kevin Johnson acknowledged at a Starbucks investor meeting that the most dominant shift they are seeing in consumer behavior is toward plant-based products, more than a year after Starbucks completed a sweeping environmental assessment. This review of their environmental practices revealed that in 2018 the franchise was responsible for emitting 16 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, using 1 billion cubic meters of water, and dumping 868 metric kilotons — more than twice the weight of the Empire State Building — of coffee cups and other waste. (They could take the initiative that other companies like Blue Bottle have done.) Additionally, the franchise discovered that dairy products were the number one source of the chain’s carbon emissions.
Some, like those who responded to my Twitter post, may try to argue that non-dairy milk and creamers have a more expensive overhead cost and therefore the extra 50-plus-cents are necessary. But in looking at Starbucks’ profit margin per cup, that argument falls flat. Coffee is about $8 a pound, and Starbucks likely gets it for cheaper buying in bulk, which gets you about 26 cups of coffee. So, for just the coffee, that’s about 30 cents a cup. The average cost of a coffee drink sells for around $3-$4, in 2021. Subtract the cost from the revenue and divide the difference by the original cost to get the margin. The margin in this scenario is roughly 90% percent on the coffee alone. With such a high-profit margin per cup of coffee, even after overhead, it is not an unreasonable request to stop charging for non-dairy milk.
The real costs of milk (and meat) are always much more than their market prices. Meat and dairy receive significant subsidies to the tune of nearly $40 billion a year from taxpayers. This artificially deflates the real cost to produce these products. It also deflects the issues Starbucks says it’s invested in, such as the impact on our air, water, and soil — not to mention the animal cruelty we’re paying for every time we buy the artificially low-priced meat and dairy. If the true cost of milk were reflected by its carbon impact alone, it would cost far more than the surcharge we’re forced to pay on the sustainable alternative.
Another argument being made by Starbucks itself is that any alterations to the original “recipe” of their drinks are charged extra, including adding flavor or extra shots of espresso. (If that is the case… why doesn’t Starbucks have any non-dairy drinks on their “menu” for the same as the dairy drinks?) Eco-friendly substitutions should not be lumped into the same category as additions to drinks. How can a company that has voiced a commitment to sustainability be so hesitant to make a simple change for the betterment of our planet?
The market trends, and alarming scientific data linking climate change and the dairy industry (not to mention the animal rights issues!) point towards an obvious need for phasing out dairy products. If Starbucks hopes to meet its goal of reducing 50 percent of its carbon emissions, water use, and waste by 2030, then an obvious first step is to ensure that the environmentally-friendly options are accessible to everyone by lowering the price of their non-dairy options, and not penalizing those of us who are already choosing the sustainable, kind products. Like Mr. Cumming and the many other voices on this issue, I am once again urging Starbucks to do the right thing and drop the extra charge for non-dairy milk.
Please join me in calling out to Starbucks and other coffee chains and urge them not to charge customers more for making the responsible and sustainable milk choice.