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  • Ava McCandless

Oat milk Defaults as Corporate Climate Action


Art by Karolina Grabowska

Amidst a climate crisis, the least we can do is stop assuming people take their coffee with cow’s milk.

Last year, nationwide coffee chain Blue Bottle Coffee flipped its milk default from cow’s milk to oat milk, citing customer preference and environmental sustainability as motives. Defaults are sneaky – you don’t realize they exist, silently swaying consumer choices, until a company like Blue Bottle decisively ousts dairy in favor of its charismatic successor. Alternative milks are barely alternative in 2023 – oat, soy, and almond have been increasing their market share for years. Even so, in most coffee shops, cow’s milk sits comfortably as the incumbent creamer.

If we start to really think about cow’s milk, we begin to wonder why it holds such an exalted position in our diets. It doesn’t fill a nutritional niche that can’t be replaced by fortified juice or plant milk. Any argument for its naturalness falls flat when we consider that cows (like all mammals) produce milk for their own young, not for human adults. This is why so many humans are lactose intolerant – it is normal to struggle digesting lactose beyond the age of five, by which point most humans would be weaned from their mother’s breast milk. In fact, up to 70% of humans globally are lactose intolerant, meaning it is actually more uncommon to have lactase persistence (the ability to digest dairy) than to be intolerant. The same report found that only 30% of Mexican Americans and 20% of Black Americans have lactose persistence, compared to 70% of European Americans. In this way, the normalization of cow’s milk exemplifies how our society structures systems around white experiences. Even for those who are able to digest lactose, research is unclear on any health benefits provided by dairy and the World Health Organization refrains from including dairy as part of a healthy diet. Why would sustenance for a young calf to develop into a large ruminant be a daily consumption for an adult of a completely different species?

Relevant to this publication, another prominent reason to reconsider the dairy default is its massive environmental footprint.

Raising dairy cows is immensely energy-intensive. Cows are large, living beings. They take up space, they drink water, they produce waste, and they eat a lot of food, which also takes land and water to grow.

A liter of cow’s milk requires 8.75m2 of land, compared to 0.76m2 for a liter of oat milk. Cow’s milk requires 628.2L of fresh water per liter, while oat milk uses 48.24L.

Meaning, a whole milk latte uses 11.5 times more land and 13 times more water than an oat milk latte. With our proliferating population, this comparison is anything but negligible.

It is one thing for dairy to be offered beside soy, oat, and almond milks at the grocery store, where the options are more evenly accessible to the consumer. But when it comes to coffee shops, every company takes an active stance on milk. How? By setting their default: dairy or non.

In most coffee shops, if you were to walk up and order a milk-based drink, you would be given the dairy option – unless you specifically request to substitute an alternative. This implicit hierarchy is often reflected in pricing schemes, as an upcharge for non-dairy milk options.

The power of this ordering system is subtle, yet profound. It relates to a behavioral science concept called “nudge theory”, which proposes that the architecture of a choice plays a big role in the decision that is made. Visual placement on menus, descriptive language, and defaults are all examples of choice architecture. Nudge theory suggests that simple, affordable, and easily avoidable interventions may be a powerful tool for subconsciously promoting decisions that benefit our environment.

Blue Bottle’s oat milk default is nudge theory in action. It is simple because oat milk is already so popular with consumers since it is comparable to dairy milk in flavor and texture, especially when steamed or frothed in coffee and tea concoctions. It is affordable, especially when considering that many oat milks are shelf stable, meaning money can be saved from lower refrigeration costs and less tossing of expired dairy. It is also an avoidable intervention, meaning the customer is not forced to have oat milk. Dairy milk would remain available, as an alternative upon request.

Most likely, though, many customers who previously would not actively request oat milk will end up sticking with the new default – this is the power of a nudge. During their pilots of the oat milk default, Blue Bottle indeed saw oat milk drinks increase from 21 to 40% in their various regions across the country.

Your latte may seem insignificant in the scheme of climate change – it isn’t. It was millions of small human activities that added up to this potential apocalypse scenario, so why can’t the solution be the sum of billions of small conscious choices? If companies harness the power of sustainable defaults, consumers can act more while thinking less. For the sake of our planet, I hope to continue seeing dairy dethroned in coffee shops everywhere.

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