Dairy-Free Starbucks: A Win for Animals and the Planet

starbucks coffee dairyfree

In high school, I always kept just a little over three dollars in change in the pocket of my jeans for my after-school chai tea latte. That was my creamy sugar hit, a much-needed ritual before teaching karate classes to young kids until late at night. My love affair with Starbucks began to wane after spending time with Guatemalan coffee farmers who complained about the company. Further research grew my ideological aversion into a boycott; a political statement. Hardly does a company grow to become a giant without a leaving gargantuan footprint.

Starbucks serves 80,000 different drink combinations to 100 million customers per week in 80 countries worldwide. One order can be customized in nearly a dozen ways. Customers can order a Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, skinny Vanilla Latte; a Nonfat Frappuccino with Extra Whipped Cream and Chocolate Sauce; or my teenage favorite—a Grande Chai Tea Latte, 3-Pump, Skim Milk, Lite Water, No Foam, Extra Hot—just to name a few possibilities. Treats to pair with these customized beverages include cake pops, glazed donuts, iced lemon pound cake, marshmallow dream bars, double-chocolate-chunk brownies, and many varieties of cake. All of these drinks and food offerings are packed with dairy products—the worst contributor to Starbucks’ environmental footprint.

Earlier this year, Starbucks’ staggering environmental footprint was revealed by a sustainability audit by World Wildlife Fund and Quantis. Highlights include: annually using 1 billion cubic meters of water, dumping 868 metric kilotons of coffee cups and waste, and emitting a total of 16 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, weighs just 108 metric kilotons—eight times less than Starbucks’ annual wastage in coffee cups and grounds. Starbucks’ dairy usage, comprising 21 percent of its GHG emissions in 2018, is revealed by the audit as the single greatest source of the company’s emissions. This audit only presents data from 2018, and does not account for the impact of the thousands of Starbucks stores opened since. With these statistics laid out, there is sufficient data to demonstrate precisely how much Starbucks impacts the planet and how greatly it could reduce that impact by ditching dairy.

The data provided in the report indicates how the world’s biggest multinational coffee chain impacts the environment but does not address its effects on the animal agriculture supply chain. The report discusses Starbucks’ dairy footprint only in terms of land usage and carbon emissions but does not quantify its demand for cow milk in gallons or liters. Based on an extrapolation of 2011 data, Starbucks daily uses over 540,000 gallons of milk across its 31,000+ outlets worldwide. The average dairy cow produces 8 gallons of milk per day. Eliminating animal dairy from Starbucks translates into sparing 67,559 cows from getting their milk intensively pumped out of them every day.

What is unquantifiable here, although not insignificant, is the amount of suffering reduced for those 67,559 dairy cows. A dairy-free Starbucks would also eliminate the need to repeat, endlessly, the inhumane, repetitive cycle of dairy milk production. Sparing 67,559 dairy cows from the horrors and injustices of factory farming, in turn, spares all of their potential offspring and offspring’s offspring from the same miserable fate. Dairy cows live for approximately five to six years (dramatically less than their natural lifespans of up to 20 years) and start giving birth around two years old; they can have a calf per year after that. These 67,559 dairy cows will likely give birth to between 270,000 and 338,000 calves, of which around half (the males) will be almost immediately slaughtered as veal and the other half will endure the same exploitation as their mothers. Female cows, in addition to spending hours daily attached to mechanical milking machines, are subject to the cruel practice of artificial insemination—which involves the use of farmers’ fists—and mourn the theft of their calves, from which they are separated mere hours after birth. Eliminating the demand for milk from just 67,559 cows has exponentially positive effects, both immediately and perpetually into the future.

A dairy-free Starbucks, in addition to reducing animal exploitation and suffering, would yield positive effects for the environment and improve public health. Producing a glass of dairy milk emits three times the greenhouse gasses as a glass of plant-based milk. This 200-milliliter glass of dairy milk requires nine times more land to raise dairy cows, and grow crops for those cows, than any mylks on the market. The vast majority of global soya production—93 percent—occurs for the purpose of feeding cows and other farmed animals; meaningfully shifting to plant-based milks would result in a substantial decrease in deforestation rates worldwide. Public health would benefit from reduced dairy production because dairy cows and other farmed animals receive high quantities of antibiotic drugs, which is resulting in the increasing occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in both farmed animals and humans. A decision by Starbucks to eliminate animal dairy would not resolve these global issues, but its influence as a multinational corporation would hold sway and could catalyze follow-on change nearly everywhere in the world.

Starbucks already offers several alternatives to dairy milk, including almond, coconut, soy, and oat milks. Some 15-20 percent of Starbucks patrons in North America currently opt for these alternatives. Increasing Starbucks customers’ consumption of plant-based milks would amplify the negative externalities associated with these dairy milk alternatives. Almond milk, after dairy, requires the most water: 130 pints of water are used to produce every glass of almond milk. Oat milk is the most planet-friendly alternative—its production emits the second least carbon gases (almond milk emits the least greenhouse gases) and very little water and land to produce compared to dairy; oats grown in rotation can even increase the regenerative qualities of soil. Plant-based milk alternatives are still associated with greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and unjust labor practices, but to a much lesser degree than dairy production. The greenest of these dairy milk alternatives—oat milk—is lauded for its taste and texture, positioning the takeover of oat milk as a win-win-win for Starbucks consumers, cows, and the planet. Starbucks consumers can be assured that a total shift to plant-based milks would not adversely or meaningfully affect their enjoyment of their favorite beverages.

Since the sustainability audit was published this year, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has pledged a “bold, new, broad aspiration” in environmental sustainability. Johnson states that Starbucks is committed to pursuing “a bold, multi-decade aspiration to become resource positive”—meaning that the corporation intends to contribute more to the planet than it consumes. Starbucks is now targeting a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions in its direct operations and supply chain. The most prudent and swift action that Starbucks could take to make good on its stated sustainability goals would be to greatly reduce or entirely eliminate its demand for animal dairy. A click-bait article headlined Starbucks May Phase Out Dairy to Combat Climate Change—quickly refuted by Starbucks—invited a storm of internet chatter earlier this year. Johnson’s pledge mentions expanding Starbucks’ plant-based options as a core focus area, but, two weeks after Johnson’s statement, the company came forward to assert that it is not planning to phase out animal dairy. Without a willingness to take this “radical” step, Starbucks will be hard-pressed to meet its pledged environmental goals—and will continue to cause undue animal suffering. Starbucks’ sustainability commitments need to extend beyond minimizing the amount of natural resources that it uses to operate at a frenetic business-as-usual pace and should encompass how its product offerings conscript the lives of thousands of animals to torturous commodification.

Images of impoverished coffee farmers at the beginning of the supply chain are already well-known, but the thought of a chained, violated dairy cow rarely enters one’s mind when enjoying a foamy cappuccino. Starbucks may now be paying attention to its environmental footprint, but it has yet to address its impact on metrics that deal with non-human lives. The corporation’s dairy usage is acknowledged only in terms of the associated water and carbon footprint, not the number of animals that the milk came from or the many forms of suffering that they routinely endure. With the world watching, Starbucks must take bold action to fulfill its bold promise to give more to the planet than it takes with its colossal operations. Now is a prime moment for Starbucks to acknowledge and address the anguish that it imposes on the thousands of dairy cows responsible for the milk in your favorite Starbucks beverage. As a Starbucks customer, now is the time to start choosing the dairy-free option.