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  • Lara Engel

Pouring change: brands' impact on sustainable food consumption

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

‘If you want to change the world, change your milk’ – Plenish Drinks


In today’s climate-conscious society, there has been a surge in popularity in plant-based milk. With dairy products ranking second in food-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, people are increasingly concerned about dairy milk’s environmental impact. The wholesome and healthy associations of dairy milk have been torn apart by environmental activists and supporters of plant agriculture. Animal rebellion protestors have soaked Waitrose, Whole Foods and M&S stores in London and Edinburgh with dairy milk to advocate for a plant-based future.


Plant-based milk brands are responsible for shaping consumer attitudes towards the dairy industry. However, in doing so stereotypes around individuals who consume plant-based milk have diffused across society. In order to combat climate change, brands should not aestheticize, and cater to, a specific type of consumer, but instead broaden their target demographic to foster a more effective shift to sustainable food consumption. Plant-based milk is a hopeful beginning to an ethical and sustainable food industry. To succeed in this transition, it is important we create a more inclusive environment where all members of society feel they can participate in the fight against climate change through their food consumption habits.


In the growing plant-based milk market, brands are under increasing pressure to come up with creative marketing strategies to compete in the market. Generally, their approaches fall into three categories: functional, lifestyle and activist.


Brands that harness functionality largely emphasise the nutritional benefits of plant-based milk. Wunda, for example, boasts the high protein content of its pea milk and Rude Health embraced the slogan ‘eat right, stay brilliant’. By linking their products with vitality, consumers are persuaded to engage in sustainable food consumption. Yet, this type of marketing strategy has a limited appeal as it may only resonate with health-conscious consumers.


Adopting the lifestyle approach is problematic for the same reason. By harnessing cultural trends, brands associate their product with a particular way of living. Breakfast is often skipped in the fast-paced lives that many of us lead. To break this habit, Plenish’s 'Wake up with Plenish' campaign emphasises the importance of eating breakfast in the morning as a way of starting your day well. Not only does this enhance people’s health but it also contributes to losing the habit of consuming dairy milk in the morning.


While aestheticizing plant-based milk consumption comes with its benefits, it also has its drawbacks. The ‘oat milk latte’ girl that permeates across social media is a prime example of the detrimental impacts of lifestyle branding. The typical oat milk latte girl is a young, blonde, middle-class woman. Associating oat milk with being slender and chic tosses aside the vast majority of the population. People who do not fit this identity may feel out of place consuming said, ‘oat milk latte’. Plant-based brands and social media need to stop gendering, classifying and stereotyping the consumption of their products. If they persist, the transition to more sustainable eating habits will be slow and tedious.


Oatly has shown some promising efforts to disengage from the lifestyle approach. Being one of the world’s leading plant-based milk brands, it wields significant influence over consumer perceptions towards such products. As part of its activist branding strategy, Oatly aims to drive the discussion around the ethics of the dairy industry. The brand’s bold slogans, such as ‘it is like milk but made for humans’ and ‘Wow, no cow!’ oppose dairy milk. By challenging the dairy sector, Oatly prompts consumers to question the implications of milk consumption and its unique and captivating campaigns has made Oatly one of the most iconic plant-based milk brands. Leveraging social media and making witty content has created a sense of community that transcends geographical boundaries, reaching diverse social groups. Through brand activism, Oatly has influenced people to interrogate the environmental impact of their milk choices.


Yet, activist branding does not come without risks. Oatly has a history of facing greenwashing accusations in its advertising campaigns. Greenwashing is the act of making imprecise statements regarding pro-environmental practices. In 2022, Oatly released a TV advert that claimed, ‘Oatly generates 73% less CO2 vs. milk, calculated from grower to grocer’. This statistic is misleading since it only compares its Barista edition with full cream milk. When engaging in brand activism it is essential to sustain transparency and authenticity. By creating a façade of environmental responsibility, the stereotype of the environmental activist is challenged. Consumers are led to believe that they are environmentally conscious purchasers, when in reality, they are unknowingly contributing to environmental degradation. 


To effectively drive more sustainable diets, plant-based milk brands must adopt an activist approach while transparently showcasing their environmental credentials. Empowering people to make sustainable choices is crucial. Brands need to move beyond catering to niche stereotypes and instead give each and every consumer the capacity to engage in sustainable practices. To make sustainable consumption universally accessible and relatable, brands must join forces with all sections of society to make the plant-based milk movement truly meaningful and impactful.


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