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Why Is Everyone Talking About Non-Dairy Milk?

And why do some Starbucks charge more for alternative milks?

The actor James Cromwell recently made news when he had a cow at a Manhattan’s Starbucks.

As part of a protest organized by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the actor, known for his steely presence in “Succession” and “Green Mile,” glued his hand to the counter. 

While wearing a “Free the Animals” t-shirt, he reportedly said “more than 13,000 customers have asked you,” according to RetailWire. “Now we’re asking: Will you stop charging more for vegan milk? When will you stop raking in huge profits while customers, animals and the environment suffer?”

Cromwell’s protest came just a month after Sir Paul McCartney wrote a letter to outgoing Starbucks  (SBUX) - Get Starbucks Corporation Report CEO Kevin Johnson asking him to change the company’s policy regarding charging more for drinks that involve non-dairy, alternative milks such as Oatly  (OTLY) - Get Oatly Group AB Report or almond or coconut based milks, which he notes is not the policy in his native UK.

Cromwell’s petition garnered more than 135,000 supporters online, with PETA pointing out that competing fast casual food and coffee chains such as Wawa, Panera Bread, Pret a Manger, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, “already offer dairy-free milk at no extra charge.”

Say what you will about PETA (even people generally sympathetic to animal rights goals think the advocacy group can be a bit much), they’re not a group known to back down, so expect to see more of these stories in the coming months.

But what exactly is really going on here?

Does Starbucks Charge More For Alternative Milks?

So, does Starbucks really charge more for non-diary milks? 

In short: kind of. It all depends on which location you go to.

“Customers can customize any beverage on our menu with a non-dairy milk, including soymilk, coconutmilk, almondmilk, and oatmilk for an additional cost (similar to other beverage customizations such as an additional espresso shot or syrup),” said a Starbucks spokesperson..

“Pricing varies market by market. Adding a splash of any alt-milk to Brewed Coffee, Iced Coffee, Cold Brew and Americano beverages is offered free of charge.”

Starbucks generally has a reputation of being about as progressive as you can reasonably expect from a 51-year-old, multi-billion dollar company. 

So it’s not exactly what you would call “pro-union,” but it did offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partnerships before such as thing was common, and it prides itself on being a corporate leader in the environmental sustainability movement. 

But PETA does take issue with that last claim.

“Despite its lip service to sustainability, Starbucks continues to put profits over the planet and charges at least 60 cents more for vegan milks, penalizing customers for choosing alternatives that are better for animals, their health, and the environment,” said Moira Colley, associate director of press outreach for PETA. 

“Starbucks has acknowledged that dairy is the company's biggest contributor to its carbon footprint, and proclaimed that it will strive to offer more plant-based food and drinks as part of its sustainability solution, but has refused to make these options more accessible by dropping the surcharge.”

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While there’s no confirmed, company-wide set surcharge price for non-dairy milks, it’s a common enough practice for Starbucks to charge more that it confirmed to Fast Company that rumored “plans to nix a 70-cent charge” for alt-milks was false.

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But Why Does Starbucks Charge More For Non-Dairy Milks?

Non-dairy milk has grown in popularity over the years, reaching sales of about $2 billion. Even people who don’t identify as vegan enjoy it, for reasons ranging from wanting to reduce their carbon footprint to animal rights’ reasons.

That said, it remains a bit of a niche product overall, still only accounting for total milk sales of around 10%

“While oat milk and other plant based milks are becoming more popular, especially in urban areas, there still isn’t massive demand throughout the country and because these plant based milks are alternatives, they usually are more expensive and sold at fewer retailers, making them even more limited in demand,” notes Eva Clarke of Health Studio Labs. 

Clarke adds that “plant-based milk is really more expensive than regular milk with the regular price of whole milk at a California Whole Foods being $2.99 for 64 ounces and $5.49 for oat milk.”

Starbucks helped introduce “coffee culture” to the masses by offering an elevated experience, venturing that customers wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for upscale drinks like cappuccinos and lattes, which at one point seemed a bit fancy to Americans but caught on.

So while environmentalists and PETA view the surcharge as a blockade against the further popularity of alternative milks and the benefits they bring, Starbucks seems to be treating it as another luxury item that some customers are willing to splurge on.

“Because demand is lower and tends to be found from a consumer base that is more conscious about the products they are using,” says Clarke, “companies and restaurants are able to charge more for the convenience of supplying the alternative.”