Is it fair (or maybe racist) to charge extra for milk alternatives at Starbucks?

Paying extra for milk alternatives: unfair, illogical – and a little bit racist?

Why charging customers more for non-dairy milk in coffee at Starbucks and other cafes is more of a problem than you might think

by Aliya Uteuova

f you are vegan, lactose intolerant, or simply don’t consume dairy, chances are your coffee run comes with an additional fee. Starbucks charges its US customers roughly 70¢ extra for oat, soy, almond, and coconut milk, and such additional costs are common at other cafes across the country.

But not every coffee shop does the same. And the reasons they cite are not only customer taste preferences – they say that dairy milk is far worse for the climate, and that because rates of lactose intolerance are higher among people of color, the alternative milk surcharge also perpetuates unfairness. There are calls for more coffee shops, and Starbucks, to follow suit.

Last month, Starbucks dropped the upcharge for non-dairy milk in all of its 1,020 stores in the UK, prompting the question: why does the surcharge exist in the first place?

For years, pressure has been mounting on Starbucks to remove the fees, with the latest campaign by dairy-free advocacy group Switch4Good criticizing the corporation in a mock press release. It followed with an open letter to Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson printed as a half-page ad in the Seattle Times, which highlighted what it called the dietary racism of the dairy alternative surcharge. About 36% of people in the US are lactose intolerant, a genetic condition that predominantly affects people of color.

Yet the odds are stacked for dairy. The US Department of Agriculture subsidizes the dairy industry, and offers federal reimbursements for cow’s milk served to over 50 million students in school lunches. “The USDA mandates cow’s milk in schools, and it is the most common food allergy in children under 16,” said Dotsie Bausch, an Olympic cyclist and executive director of Switch4Good. “I have to ask myself, would it ever be acceptable to offer a food staple to Caucasian kids that is not digestible to them?”

“It’s not fair to charge more for plant-based milk,” said Ebony Williams-Cox, a vegan content creator based in Reading, whose beverage of choice is hot chocolate with soy milk and dairy-free cream. “I’m a Starbucks girl, but it’s not accessible to everyone. Those barriers in place are what stops people from even trying vegan milks.”

A Starbucks spokesperson told the Guardian that in US stores, adding a “splash” of any non-dairy to beverages like brewed coffee is free of charge, while custom drinks and adding more than a splash come with costs similar “to other beverage customizations such as an additional espresso shot or syrup”.

The spokesperson did not say why plant-based alternatives cost more, telling the Guardian that the company has “nothing immediate to share on plans in the US to remove the additional cost”.

The retail price of plant-based milk is roughly twice that of dairy milk, according to Mintec, which analyzes food commodity price data. The higher price is attributed to packaging, plus a more costly blending and bottling process.

But has dairy milk’s ascendance peaked? In the US, cow’s milk consumption has been declining at an average rate of 2.6% a year in the past decade, while plant-based milk alternatives have been on a rise. Adapting to changing consumer patterns, many dairy producers have shifted to producing non-dairy milk, with some, such as Elmhurst, switching entirely to a plant-based production.

Milk is costly to the environment, but plant-based alternatives have their drawbacks too. Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

Blue Bottle Coffee, a leading chain, has made oat milk the default at 27 – or more than a third – of its US locations. “We estimate dairy to be a leading source of emissions from our cafe operations,” Audrey Waldrop, sustainability manager at Blue Bottle Coffee, said in a statement to the Guardian. The carbon footprint of cow’s milk is about three times that of plant-based milk. “In offering oat milk as the default milk choice, we wanted to provide a sustainable alternative without the extra charge, in addition to realizing that some folks are intolerant to dairy.”

Although plant-based milk has lower greenhouse gas emissions than cow’s milk,​​ farmed alternatives also have their drawbacks, too. Almond milk, for example, uses more water than any other dairy alternative, while the growing demand for soy, which is mainly used for animal feed rather than milk, is driving deforestation in the Amazon.

“In the long term, the prices for plant-based milk might go down as the size of the industry increases, allowing for more competition in the market,” said Binod Khanal, who researches agricultural economics and consumer behavior at the University of Connecticut. He said the preference for plant-based milk among consumers is largely due to concerns for climate change as well as lactose intolerance, predominantly among the non-white demographic. Roughly 61% of US households are primarily dairy milk drinkers, while close to 23% were primarily plant based drinkers – and were more likely to identify as liberal – according to a recent study.

But while the milk consumption has declined, overall dairy consumption in the US keeps going up, thanks to milk-derived products like cheese, butter, yogurt and kefir.

“We’re seeing the biggest shift in cheese, which tripled in the last five decades,” said Alan Bjerga, a spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation. He acknowledged that the dairy industry has been competing with plant-based beverages for the past 40 years, while challenging their right to even use terms like “milk” to describe their products. “If coffee houses are charging more for a plant-based beverage, that’s probably because it costs more to begin with, and they need to keep their margin,” Bjerga said.

Following the announcement of Starbucks UK dropping its surcharge, plant-based consumers like Ebony Williams-Cox are hopeful that other companies will follow suit.

“Better late than never,” Williams-Cox said. “Plant-based products still cost more, which is why a lot of people perceive it as an expensive lifestyle, but it’s not the consumers that price things up.”

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