Since the early 2000s, the ever-expanding coffee empire Starbucks has offered a soy milk alternative for patrons who will not or can not drink dairy. In 2015 they also began expanding their dairy-free menu options to include coconut, almond, and oat milk. And in 2020, the chain started including a limited amount of vegan and vegetarian offerings on their food menus.
While it is undeniable that Starbucks was somewhat of a non-dairy pioneer for offering a cruelty-free option long before most chains even considered them, unfortunately, their milk alternatives have always come at an added price to consumers.
Over the years, many campaigns by activists and organizations alike have asked Starbucks to drop their high fees for dairy-free options, all to no avail. It seemed that it didn’t matter how many petitions consumers created or signatures gathered; nothing could get the attention of the coffee giant until Switch4Good, that is.
Switch4Good is an evidence-based nonprofit founded by Team USA Olympian Dotsie Bausch. Bausch founded the organization in response to her frustration with the dairy industry’s infiltration of the Olympic Games. She struck back at big dairy by gathering a film crew and a team of dairy-free Olympians to create a response to the dishonest pro-dairy campaigns.
Since its founding, Switch4Good has successfully lobbied to have soy milk recognized as a nutritional equivalent to milk and are now working to provide access for schools to and reimbursement for soy milk. Members have also testified on Capitol Hill to support their petition to remove dairy from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
In December of 2021, Switch4Good devised a plan to get Starbucks’ attention. They joined forces with the Yes Men – who have “used humor and trickery since 1996 to highlight the corporate takeover of society” to launch a self-proclaimed undercover “brandjacking” campaign titled “Starbucks Cares.” The Starbucks Cares campaign would appear to promote a new Starbucks campaign that featured a new product named the “Justice Cup.”
It all began with a fake press release that appeared to originate from Starbucks, which included a link to a high-quality campaign video and spoof website StarbucksCares.com informing users that “For over 50 years Starbucks has strived to bring us closer together. But did you know that the milk we drink is tearing us apart?”
The campaign material stated that a vast percentage of the world’s population could not digest dairy, and most dairy intolerance affects BIPOC individuals. The video said that this revelation inspired Starbucks to work to bring us closer together by decreasing the cost of plant-based milk and increasing the cost of dairy-based milk to combat “dietary racism.”
“Dietary racism is a social construct built by a racial majority that assumes the food the majority consumes affects other races and cultures in the same way. This mindset often leads to actions that are meant to enhance the health of the majority at the (often unintended) expense of the minority. Dietary racism is often an unconscious bias.” (switch4good.org)
Approximately 65% of the world’s general population is lactose intolerant. When you divide that number by race, you see that a disproportionate number of BIPOC (up to 95%) fall into that category compared to white/Caucasian individuals (15%). Switch4Good states that charging extra for dairy-free options is a prime example of dietary racism.
As seen in the “Starbucks Cares” video above, the campaign suggested that Starbucks discriminated against these individuals by adding an up-charge to any non-dairy milk requests. Switch4Good’s Justice Cup campaign successfully sought to bring this problem to light. In addition to launching an online campaign, Switch4Good also sent undercover team members into select Starbucks stores to “redeem” realistic-looking discount vouchers for the non-dairy up-charge. The resulting videos were quite entertaining.
They let the campaign grow long enough to ensure that Starbucks had seen the announcement before issuing a spoof denial. Finally, Switch4Good released a campaign reveal video to claim responsibility for the “brandjacking” and explain their rationale. In addition, Switch4Good released an education Dietary Racism Explainer video and made many calls to Starbucks Customer Service, requesting that they discontinue the non-dairy up-charge.
While the fate of the non-dairy up-charge in Starbucks stores across the United States remains unknown, it is clear that Starbucks UK is now listening. Beginning on January 5, 2022, all UK Starbucks locations will be dropping their non-dairy up-charge. Considering that milk is the main factor in Starbucks’ overall global footprint, dropping the up-charge will also aid Starbucks UK in its goal to become a resource-positive company by 2030. Removing the extra charge allows customers to make more climate-positive choices without additional costs.
In addition, Starbucks UK plans to continue expanding plant-based options to their food and drink menus. Their “oat platform” includes a blonde roast espresso as well as three flavors of oat milk lattes: strawberry & vanilla, honey & hazelnut (not vegan), and dark cocoa & orange.
New food options will incorporate vegan-friendly lunch and bakery options: a vegan tuna sandwich, pecan & caramel brownie, carrot cake (with an oat-based frosting), and chocolate & caramel muffins. Starbucks customers in the UK will soon indulge in a vegan whipped cream option with all drinks and enjoy sandwiches made with Beyond Meat.
While Starbucks may appear to be a coffee chain, in reality they sell more milk than java. Each year, Starbucks’ significant environmental impact is compounded by the more than 93 million gallons of dairy milk sold in their stores. Consumer demand for plant-based alternatives in the USA continues to grow despite the U.S. government’s financial support of the fading dairy industry through large, tax-funded subsidies.
In 2020, a statement by Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson received public backlash from dairy industry publications when the company’s “sustainability commitment” was released. It included goals for expanding Starbuck’s plant-based options and evolving menus to be more environmentally friendly. “Alternative milks will be a big part of the solution,” Johnson said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “The consumer-demand curve is already shifting.”
Just as Mr. Johnson stated above, the curve for consumers has already begun to shift towards change. Activist organizations like Switch4Good, FARM, and alike work tirelessly to raise awareness of hidden truths and lies that go unseen. As humanity continues to evolve towards sustainability and compassion, a wide variety of industry insiders estimate that the demand for sustainable, cruelty-free products will increase exponentially in the foreseeable future and beyond.