People are increasingly concerned with the impact their food choices are having on the world around them. It is one of the drivers for food innovation and the rise of plant-based meat alternatives, organic produce and non-dairy milks. Healthy, sustainable products are becoming mainstream, but these products are often marked-up with a premium, and people need to have a clear understanding of how that premium is helping the social and natural environment before they shell out.
Historically, most grocery brands have struggled to build trust around their ESG credentials, with dire consequences. The tale of almond milk is a story as old as time: communication is key!
Reinventing a staple
When the Iced Sugar Cookie Almond Milk Latte (try saying that in one breath) hit the Starbucks menu in 2021, it was the first non-dairy Holiday drink they had ever released. Sales of non-dairy milk grew 61% between 2012 and 2017 in the US alone. No longer occupying a niche health food category, alternative milks are widely championed as a tasty, nutritious and sustainable alternative to dairy, not to mention a growing 2 billion dollar industry.
At the same time, people are not drinking as much dairy as their parents. In the US, people today only drink half as much milk as they did in the 1970s. The milk industry is suffering as a result: sales dropped $1B in 2017 alone. Over the last decade, 1200 dairy farms shut down in New York, and the US’ largest milk maker filed for bankruptcy. The same thing is happening throughout the world. Dairy still dominates, making up ~95% of the milk market, but non-dairy milks are firmly cementing themselves as household favourites.
An unlevel playing field
Despite their firm market position today, non-dairy milks have had a long and storied past. Time and time again, the health and environmental benefits have been lost in the white noise of bad press. The first non-dairy milk to gain widespread popularity – back in the 90s – was soy milk, containing protein, fibre and an array of other healthy nutrients. However, when research came out that linked soy milk to higher risks of breast cancer (spoiler alert - this isn’t true for humans!) the new favourite quickly fell from fame.
Whilst people are keen to try new products – especially those that profess to be in line with their own ethical values – they are also half-expecting the scare stories that suggest the ‘familiar, old favourites’ aren’t so bad after all. Ethical products need to work twice as hard to fend off the naysayers and prove they are worth the switch.
Right on cue, the new kid on the non-dairy block – almond milk – hit heavy criticism for its ‘intensive water use’ shortly after gaining popularity. Now, it’s true that almond production does use a lot of water in an area of the world that no longer has as much as it once did; 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in drought-stricken California, using 10% of the state’s total water supply. Nevertheless, it takes just 10% of the water to make a litre of almond milk compared to a litre of dairy milk, and it doesn’t produce the vast amount of methane that dairy does. In fact, almond milk has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any milk - dairy or non-dairy - but the environmental benefits of almond milk have repeatedly been drowned out by bad press from a wide variety of national and niche interest publications.
It’s not easy to weigh up the relative environmental impact of different products, but it’s clear that almond milk should not – based on the facts – be singled out as the least eco non-dairy milk. And it certainly shouldn’t be shunted down below cow’s milk.
Reversing the tide of public opinion
Almond milk is not alone as a product that is being misrepresented. So what can the almond industry, or others in a similar predicament, do about it?
1. Hold yourself accountable by being transparent
The big almond milk brands have all responded by adding water use transparency pages to their websites; Blue Diamond has even partnered with the Freshwater Trust for extra credibility. Verve’s recent Empowering Sustainable Lives study has shown that consumers find brands more trustworthy when they acknowledge the part they are playing in global warming and work to directly address their impact. For example, the numerous mattress brands that offer a service to collect and recycle old mattresses for a nominal (or no) charge.
2. Join forces with others to fix the source of the problem
Almond milk is an environmentally-friendly product in essence, but as human-induced climate change causes extreme weather events to become more frequent and severe, the industry needs to adapt to pressures on local water supplies. In addition to encouraging the switch to water-efficient micro-irrigation systems, brands should lobby Government for clean water solutions. California is already exploring options ranging from increasing groundwater storage, to investing in the world’s first wave-powered desalination plant – but action is needed and fast.
3. Adapt and innovate in the face of environmental change
As the planet heats up and weather systems become more unstable, grocery industries are exploring new ground to ensure their survival. Whilst other regions of the world can jump on the opportunity to become almond growers, the almond farmers of California may need to diversify their crops during the current drought – perhaps exploring hardier crops that can thrive in an arid climate.
The wine industry in Napa Valley is already making huge moves to adapt to climate change. Even after the switch to more sustainable micro-irrigation systems and legislation to restore underground water sources, the 44,000 acres of vineyards are being forced to experiment with ways to diversify their crops. This move is matched by a curiosity from consumers to also explore new ground. According to the 2020 State of the Wine Industry report, people are becoming more experimental with the alcohol they drink (craft beers, spiked seltzers). This has led to unique opportunities and strange combinations hitherto unheard of: Pinot Noir from Mexico anyone?
4. Help consumers separate fact from (greenwashing) fiction
The fact that almond milk suffered such bad press when it has traditionally been pretty eco-friendly demonstrates that the average consumer has trouble finding out what’s really going on. As ESG becomes a buzzword for brands across the spectrum, people are learning how to make more sustainable choices whilst simultaneously trying to work out which sources (and brands) to trust. In cases like these, actions speak louder than words. We can help consumers separate fact from fiction by…
- Responding quickly to false claims: if only almond milk brands had gone hard on PR from the outset to explain that almond milk uses a fraction of the water that dairy milk uses!
- Filling the information gaps: for many, sustainability is a new and unfamiliar world, with a new set of rules, terminology and knowledge to absorb. Offering impartial advice – perhaps in collaboration with like-minded brands and partners – will give people the tools to make decisions that are right for them
- Communicating clearly: in order to build trust, it’s crucial for brands to clearly communicate what they are doing to minimise their environmental impact. Patagonia, for example, no longer uses the word ‘sustainable’, opting instead to spell out the exact impact of their actions: “As of 2020, 39% of our apparel assembly factories are paying workers a living wage, on average.” Verve’s recent Empowering Sustainable Lives study shows that by ditching the jargon and quantifying the effects of your efforts, claims feel more trustworthy and – in turn – are less vulnerable to being misconstrued in sensationalised stories.
How Verve Can Help
Believing in ESG principles is one thing, but how does it translate into brand strategy?
Understanding how your brand and industry are perceived is a critical step to determining which problems should be prioritised. From exploring expectations to developing messages and evaluation communications, we help the world's leading companies minimise brand-associated risk and elevate their position amongst the competition.
We work with businesses at all stages of the innovation process, building the confidence to make decisions that will resonate with present and future customers as their expectations of sustainable and environmental harmony grow. From exploring emerging needs to design optimisation and pricing evaluation, we help brands make meaningful transitions whether for a single new product or, as in the case of businesses like Shell, an entire industry shift away from what has been their lifeblood, fossil fuels, to renewables.
The rollout of new regulatory compliance, not just from one country to the next, but within regional jurisdictions within a single country, can become overwhelming, especially when your business has a global presence. We work with businesses to understand the implication of legislation before they are enacted and how to maximise the consumer value as you amend to remain compliant.
* The idea that soy increases breast cancer risk came from studies released in 2008 which linked isoflavones, a plant oestrogen found in soy, to increased cancer rates. However, these studies were done on rats who process oestrogen differently to humans and were given way higher doses than what you find in commercial soy milk. The American Cancer Society says soy milk actually reduces the risk of cancer in humans.
** Setting up the scheme is only the first step - the execution, which is currently experiencing some technical difficulties, is what matters.
Find out more about People & Planet