While plant-based milk has been around for centuries, the market is undergoing a modern-day surge. The industry has soared to a market value of $20 billion. Consumers in all age brackets are contributing, but the rise is in large part fueled by eco-minded and racially diverse young people, who are consuming 550 percent moreplant-based milk than previous generations. Oatmilk in particular has gained a massive following due to its creamy consistency, growing 44 times in popularity in just a three-year span between 2019 and 2022.
The rise to prominence of plant-based milk was virtually inevitable, with dairy’s popularity waning for the better part of a century. “Milk consumption is down 42 percent from what it was a half-century ago—from 247 pounds per person in 1975 to just 144 pounds today, and that has put a squeeze on dairy farms. There are about half as many dairy farms as there were in 2003, a loss of more than 38,000 licensed operations,” reported CBS News in 2022. According to the USDA, milk consumption in the United States has been trending downward for more than 70 years, with the exception of one specific use: inside hot beverages.
Fewer Americans are drinking cow’s milk as a beverage or adding it to their cereal—but the milk that people add to their coffees and teas has undergone no statistically significant changes in at least two decades. Plant-based milk is changing that.
With greater availability in supermarkets, diversity of choice, and ever-better price parity, plant-based milk is steadily replacing cow’s milk in coffee culture. A 2019 survey found that just 5 percent of survey respondents identified as vegan, yet 72 percent had tried a plant-based milk alternative, with 60 percent confirming they tried these products in a coffee shop setting.
The industry’s shift can somewhat be attributed to activists’ influence, but more often than not it’s a matter-of-fact business decision. Coffeeshops are paying attention to market trends and adapting accordingly. In normalizing plant milk and leaving dairy milk behind, coffee shops are meeting consumers’ demand for plant-based options—and advancing their own goals.
Fueled by Young People
Research suggests that young people feel a sense of shame when consuming dairy. Pan-European dairy co-op Arla found that 49 percent of Generation Z (Gen Z) felt ashamed to order dairy products in public in front of their peers, and 57 percent plan to give it up altogether. This generational divide is mirrored elsewhere: Forty-three percent of Americans who bought alternative milk were 35 or younger.
Indeed, younger generations are fueling the rise of plant milk. Those same young people are dedicated coffee house consumers. A third of Gen Z consumers buy five or more foodservice beverages every week, and nearly half of millennials are spending more on coffee than they’re investing in their own retirement accounts.
In revolutionizing the space with new non-dairy norms, coffee shops are able to widen their appeal to young adults, as well as those with non-dairy diets for other reasons, including veganism, kosher, and lactose intolerance/sensitivity.
Win-Win for Business and Climate
As customers move from dairy to plant milk, there is a powerful climate impact, as businesses can drastically reduce their environmental footprint. One non-dairy latte saves 0.143 kg of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. Scaled up, the effect would be significant: On an average day, Starbucks sells 4 million cups of coffee. By its own admission, dairy is the largest source of Scope 3 emissions for Starbucks; 21 percent of its supply chain emissions come from the production of dairy—as much emissions as packaging, waste, and food combined. On both the economic and climate fronts, the transition to non-dairy milk is a win-win for coffee shops.
Down With the Upcharge: Problem of Dairy Subsidies
Perhaps the simplest way for coffee shops to make plant-based diets more equitable is to eliminate fees on vegan milk. It is standard industry practice for coffee shops, cafes, and quick-service restaurants to charge customers extra when substituting cow’s milk with a plant-based alternative. This upcharge can cost anything from a dime to over a dollar. Businesses’ common refrain is that plant-based milk costs more to purchase, so it’s fair for them to pass on the cost to the customer. Unfortunately, the ethics aren’t as black-and-white as businesses would like to believe. The reason cow’s milk is cheaper than plant-based alternatives is that animal agriculture is heavily subsidized.
Moreover, any cost passed on to the consumer will not be distributed equitably; upcharges don’t penalize vegans alone. Upcharges also impose a financial burden on the lactose intolerant, as well as members of various religious groups who abide by restricted diets.
An interfaith coalition made headlines in May 2022 for demanding that Starbucks stop charging extra for vegan milk alternatives. Composed of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish leaders, the group cited a laundry list of reasons for their opposition, from animal welfare to lactose intolerance to imposing taxes on certain lifestyles discriminately. Starbucks eliminated the upcharge at all of its 1,020 locations in the United Kingdom, following public pressure from the nonprofit Switch4Good. In the U.S. and elsewhere, activists are pressing for the same.
Coffee chains that have eliminated plant milk upcharges at all locations include Pret A Manger, Philz, and Noah’s New York Bagels.
Biggby Coffee has selectively eliminated the charge for soymilk and coconut milk but not for oat or almond.
PETA successfully petitioned Panera Bread to drop its upcharge, but the only non-dairy alternative offered is almond milk.
Flipping the Default: From Dairy to Plants
Many businesses have moved beyond simply offering plant-based options to serving plant-based by default. Blue Bottle Coffee and Stumptown Roasters, which have acted as role models for veg-forward business practices, have both flipped the default milk offering from dairy to plants.
This is not a new tactic. In 2022, Burger King locations in Austria asked customers if they would like a “normal” Whopper or one with meat. Soon after, a Taco Bell in Alabama provided customers with a pea- and soy-protein base in their Crispy Melt Taco instead of defaulting to ground beef. But now beverage companies have also started doing the same; Stumptown in Portland sells cartons of oat milk chai, while La Juiceria in Kuala Lumpur sells bottles of oat milk houjicha.
The phenomenon of serving plant milk by default is emerging worldwide. A number of roasteries and coffee bars have kicked off the trend, including Birch Coffee (New York), Stumptown (Portland), Clean (Hong Kong), and the world’s largest Starbucks roastery (Shanghai). At these locations, if customers order a drink that traditionally contains cow’s milk, they are served a drink that contains oat milk instead. Those who want cow’s milk have to request it specifically.
This is the opposite of the dairy norm practiced at traditional cafes, where cow’s milk is served by default. Traditionally, coffee shops have nudged customers toward dairy via upcharges and menu placement. If customers want to deviate from the norm, they have to read the fine print to see which alternatives exist and pay extra to choose them.
Changing businesses’ choice architecture (i.e., “flipping the default”) eases the transition to a plant-powered future by shaping institutional operations to favor the sustainable choice, regardless of each individual’s mindfulness. Plant-based defaults increase the uptake of plant-based foods. When Guilder Cafe removed its dairy default, it saw an 18 percent increase in plant-based drink sales, decreasing the overall carbon footprint of drinks by 12 percent. Blue Bottle’s oat milk default pilot, meanwhile, resulted in a 28 percent increase in oat milk usage. Plant-milk defaults nudge customers toward the plant-based option, and people are starting to harness the transformative potential of such a simple, powerful tactic.
The Future of Coffee Culture
Just like any other culture, coffee culture is formed in a community with other people. “Brands like Blue Bottle and Stumptown have been around this long because they think bigger than coffee,” saidcoffee strategist Hugh Duffie, founder of Sandows, a cold brew company. “They understand that ‘coffee’ is really about community, and that people make it or break it.”
A ubiquitous drink—so meaningful to billions of people—offers opportunities for change in various social spaces, meaning plant milk defaults aren’t limited to coffee shops, or even to the restaurant industry at large. Employees and students are driving similar shifts in office and campus settings. LinkedIn started serving oat milk by default in their San Francisco office’s cafe in 2022. Across the Atlantic, also in 2022, University College London’s student union voted to make four campus cafes default to oat milk.
In 2023, the University of Birmingham launched a pilot program to serve oat milk by default at one of its campus cafes. German and Scottish universities have gone a step further and made significant strides toward all-out veganism. Organizations such as Plant-Based Treaty and the Humane Society of the United States are working on their own campaigns to achieve similar outcomes. Led by Gen Z consumers, the future looks plant-based.
Various market research publications predict oat milk will become the planet’s milk of choice. Due to economic development, consumers in Asia and Africa—many of whom are lactose intolerant—will have more disposable income in the decades to come. Oat milk will have to contend with soy, which has had a massive presence for decades (especially in Asian cuisines) and is supported by a sizable agricultural infrastructure. Whether oat, soy, pea, rice, or almond, plant-based milk is here to stay, and it will become the norm.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.