Veganuary #2: Which non-dairy milk is the most sustainable?

mason jar of vegan nondairy milk

Veganuary is a campaign motivating people to go vegan for the month of January. For many, it’s the realization of their New Year’s Resolutions to eat healthier or embrace their love of animals. It’s a catalyst for people who have been curious about plant-based diets but have been unsure how or where to start. That’s why this month, the Coconut Cloud team is going to be sharing multiple ways we’ve incorporated plant-based goodness into our lives.

Consumers have given rise to an ever-expanding and diverse alternative milk section in recent years. Non-dairy milks like almond, soy, and coconut milk have become popular alternatives to conventional cow’s milk.

Everyone’s reasons are different, but some of the most common reasons for choosing plant-based milks are:

  1. Perceived health benefits
  2. Lactose-intolerance, which over 50 million American adults experience
  3. The environmental benefits of foregoing dairy products

The last reason – the sustainability of plant-based milks – is a topic that’s piqued my interest and informed my own alternative milk consumption the most. This begs the question – which non-dairy milk is truly the most environmentally sustainable?

How do we evaluate the most sustainable non-dairy milk?

There are many layers to understanding the environmental implications of a product, including:

  1. Land Use
  2. Water Use
  3. Management System Byproducts, including GHG Emissions
  4. Natural Byproducts

One of the reasons why cow’s milk is so resource intensive is because it requires the land and water to maintain the soil, feed, and on-farm energy required to raise cattle. Conversely, alternatives like coconut milk and almond milk only require the water and land to grow, process, and transfer those products directly.

According to p. 40 of Health Care Without Harm’s 2017 Redefining Protein Report, the average GHG-intensity of cow’s milk in North America – from production to retail – averages 1.34 kg of CO2 per Liter of cow’s milk. Comparatively, the climate impact of soy milk averages 0.88 kg CO2/L, whereas almond and coconut milk have the lowest climate impacts of around 0.42 kg CO2/L.

Water usage is another lens of evaluating how sustainable non-dairy milk alternatives really are. According to p. 41of Health Care Without Harm’s 2017 Redefining Protein Report, cow’s milk requires a whopping 86 Liters of irrigation water per kilogram. Almond milk requires less, but is still a notoriously water-intensive crop. One kilogram of almond milk requires 67 Liters/kg, which has raised eyebrows especially amidst California’s water crisis. Soy milk requires 23 L/kg, and coconut milk comes in as the least water-intensive, requiring 3 L/kg.

Like many dairy-free products, Coconut Cloud was born out of necessity; our founder Kerry was dairy-free for years for health reasons before creating her own brand of convenient, vegan, non-dairy creamer. But vegan, non-dairy creamer isn’t just a question of what’s good for people, but what’s good for our planet, too.

Based on the estimates provided by Health Care Without Harm, by getting Coconut Cloud into over 600,000 cups of coffee in 2018, we’ve conserved approximately:

conservation estimates nondairy milk carbon footprint water

What's the best milk alternative for the environment?

The answer to the question, “Which milk is the most sustainable?” comes down to this: when comparing cow’s milk with almond, coconut, and soy milk, almond and coconut have the lowest carbon footprints. When it comes to water conservation, coconut milk by far uses the least irrigation water out of even some of the most popular plant-based milk options. Beyond these considerations, it’s a question of taste.