Milk Matters: Small changes can dramatically lower your coffee’s carbon footprint

Coffee's Carbon Footprint series

Want to reduce your coffee’s environmental impacts? Milk is responsible for the majority of a cup’s carbon footprint, so lower your impacts in 2020 by making informed decisions

A recent study from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland found that over 70% of the carbon dioxide emissions from drinking a cappuccino is attributable to the milk.

In this series we’ve been examining the carbon footprint of coffee, so it would be a significant shortcoming not to investigate such a key source of emissions. So, for this article only, we jettison the coffee supply chain, coffee-making and coffee shops, to focus on understanding the environmental impacts associated with milk and milk alternatives.

The nomenclature around milk and alternative milks can be unclear, so for the purpose of this article we’re going to use the terms:

  • milk (singular) to refer to diary milk
  • mylk(s) to refer to alternative milk(s)
  • milks (plural) to refer to all milk and mylks

The global environmental impacts of milks

A key 2018 study calculated the respective environmental impacts for diary, as well as almond, oat, rice and soy mylks using data aggregated from studies from across the world.

Environmental impact of milks, including diary, rice, soy, oat and almond

The first thing that you might notice is that there is a broad correlation between each of the milks’ carbon dioxide emissions, total land use, and water use. As well as being the case for milks, the study’s authors, Poore and Nemecek, found this to be case across most food categories they assessed. As well as global warming being the key environmental pressure point, the correlation makes carbon dioxide emissions a useful shorthand for comparing and considering environmental impacts.

It important to note that these figures are expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) because the production of each of these milks produces both carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases. For example, the methane gas emitted from cows is 25 times more impactful per kilogram than carbon dioxide (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 2018). So that they can be conveniently totalled, communicated and compared, it is commonplace to convert the impacts from all the greenhouse gases into amount of carbon dioxide emissions required to produce the resultant impact.

Reviewing the headline results, the immediate deduction you might make is that coffee shops can reduce their carbon footprint by prioritising oat, soy and almond mylks; and their environmental impacts by oat and soy mylks. And this is broadly true, however, for many coffee shops in the United Kingdom the results are more nuanced and making the decisions that are right for your location and businesses will depend on other factors, such as the specific carbon footprint of your suppliers’ products, your customers’ dietary requirements, consumer demand, and transportation.

Also, United Baristas wants to encourage coffee businesses to be more sustainable – an objective which has financial, social, and environmental dimensions. So let’s take a moment to explore how local factors, variations that exist amongst producers, and economic and social factors can make the right decision for your business deviate from the headline averages.

Considering both the global picture and the local circumstance

While global averages are useful for painting in broad brush strokes, they can be misleading. For example, the carbon footprint for diary in these figures is significantly exaggerated for European and Australasian consumers because milk production in these regions is significantly below the global average.

Carbon dioxide per litre of diary milk in Latin America, Africa, Asia, North America, Europe and Oceania

A typical litre of milk produced in Europe is around a third less than the global average and less than half of the carbon emissions of milk produced in Latin America.

Such significant variations in environmental impacts are commonplace because of differing agronomy and production methods. There are also general regional factors such as climate and water consumption; various regional practices such as clearing forest for farmland; national factors such as the carbon intensity of a country’s electricity; and producer specific factors such as their production methods.

The worst 10% of producers have a negative environmental impact two to 140 times greater than the best 10%.

Poore and Nemecek

Poore and Nemecek identified that in every food category in the study, the worst 10% of producers have a negative environmental impact two to 140 times greater than the best 10%.

This means that there are significant gains to be made by either:

  • changing category: for example from a higher impact category to a lower impact category
  • changing product: switching from higher impact product to a lower impact product within the same category

Lowering your impacts through better product selection

As there are commonly great gains to be made by switching categories, this is often the headline recommendation. However, category change can be tricky to implement and can risk isolating valuable niches of customers that may be essential to making your business sustainable.

Here are two examples of significant gains that can be made through better product selection in the United Kingdom, but the principles apply globally.

Select more environmentally friendly milk

Not all milks are equal. For example, Lancashire diary farm Brades Farm have developed a milk targeted at baristas using a blend of milk from Jersey and Holstein-Friesians herds. The farm has been working with a Swiss argo-science company since 2018 to pilot a feed supplement derived from garlic and citrus when is added to the cows’ feed. The result has been a 30% reduction in the greenhouse gas methane emission from the herds. The farm has also been updating its practices since 2015 to reduce its broader environmental impacts.

Mootral methane reduction trail at Brades Farm

There are a number of diary farms actively looking at their greenhouse gas emissions and these type of emission reductions bring diary milk’s CO2e down into a more similar band of emissions to mylks.

Understand the specific carbon footprint of your mylk

Significant variation in environmental impacts also occurs amongst mylk producers. Oatly reports in its 2018 sustainability report that one litre of their oat milk produced 0.398 Kg of carbon dioxide equivalent in the year, less than half of the global average for oat milks. The lower emissions are in part a function of sourcing a particular varietal of Swedish oats and having their own production facilities, both of which allow them greater control of resource allocation and energy use.

Not all mylk producers readily communicate their carbon footprint, but understanding their CO2e per litre is essential to making informed decisions. Make sure you reach out to your suppliers to get the latest information.

Making plans to lower your carbon footprint

These examples illustrate that it is important to make informed decisions based on your specific circumstance. As we drew attention to in Calculating the Coffee Industry’s Carbon Emissions, not understand the significance of the impacts or what benefits can be achieved through behavioural change can lead to situations where immense effort can be exercised for limited gain, which has largely been the industry’s experience with tackling take out cup usage. It is firmly our position that the industry should focus on changes that are a) easy, or b) significant, and ideally both.

To lower your shop’s coffee carbon footprint, here’s four tips to make the greatest difference with milk.

Continue to be aware of the bigger picture

Carbon emission reduction through milk selection can have a very significant environmental impact, but always consider where the easiest wins can be made. For example, sugar has a footprint of circa 500 g carbon dioxide per kilogram of sugar. So cutting one or two teaspoons of sugar from your coffee would have a similar impact to the difference between opting for a porcelain cup on premises and using a single-use, take-out paper cup and lid. When making changes, make sure you win the war; not just the battle.

Start by estimating your impact

Reach out to your suppliers for the relevant information on the carbon footprint of their products. Larger companies should ideally be able to provide a life cycle assessment that relate to their specific production and products – although this has proved more challenging than one might have expected in some cases. Small producers should still have some insight, even if they are working from global or national averages as their starting point. A good number of producers have the figures publicly available on their website.

You can then calculate the impacts. For example, if you serve three milks and you know your annual sales volume you can work out the total milk carbon footprint.

This example uses the aggregated and average sales volumes of milks from several London coffee shops, combined with data and rough calculations using data from Brades and Oatly as well as the global averages for soy milk

ProductSales Volume
litres per year
Kg CO2e per litre
Kg CO2e per year
Typical UK Diary 7665215330
Low methane Dairy 76650.916975
Oatly4784 0.39 1904
GRAND TOTAL10,622 – 18,977 Kg CO2e per year

Most coffee shops using this volume of milk are likely to have a higher carbon footprint because of their milk and mylk suppliers. As an industry we need to do more work in the to identify and readily communicate the CO2e per litre of commonly available milk brands.

Set a goal

Set yourself a goal, such as reducing the milk carbon footprint by 20% over the coming year. You can achieve this in a number of ways. For example:

  • purchase milk from a diary with a lower carbon footprint
  • encourage consumers to switch to lower carbon footprint mylks
  • change which mylks, or mylk suppliers, you provide
  • promote espresso, filter, and small milk coffee sales
  • a bit of all of the above

Then periodically measure your progress towards your goal. Every quarter is sufficient for most small businesses.

As an industry we are pretty much at the start of the process of reducing our carbon footprint, so it is exciting to know that there are large, and comparatively, easy wins to be made. For example, many coffee shops reducing their milk carbon footprint by 20% would achieve a benefit an order of magnitude (that is 10x) greater than entirely eliminating single-use take out cups from their shop. Considering one’s milk carbon footprint will definitely make our list of recommendations for coffee shops aiming to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.

When setting your goal and implementing the changes it is important to remember that sustainability has financial, social and environmental dimensions . For medium term sustainability it’ll probably be necessary to both lower your carbon footprint and increase your profitability. So take your customers on the journey, get their buy in, and implement the changes at a pace they can manage.

Make decisions – where possible – for your customers

Communicating facts, differences between global averages and local figures, variations between various producers is difficult task in the rush of service and without visual aids.

We suggest you pick some actions that you can sell and integrate them into your proposition and products so that customers get the the benefit By default. For example, pick the better milks and mylks, or promote espresso and filter coffees.

You can then make a page on your website to communicate your starting point, summarising the changes you’re making, and the difference its made in lower your shop’s impacts. United Baristas has recently employed this approach to lower our community’s carbon footprint from the use of our services.

Your experience

What’s your experience with milk and mylks? Have you previously estimated your shop’s milk carbon footprint? And how will you reduce your shop’s carbon footprint in the coming year?

If you have any thoughts, experiences or questions, contact us –  we’re on all the usual channels.

References and further reading

• J. Poore, T. Nemecek; Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360 (6392) 987-992, 01 Jun 2018. A copy is available here.
• Climate change: Which vegan milk is best? BBC, 22 February 2019
• Hilde Vrancken, Maria Suenkel, Paul R. Hargreaves, Lynette Chew, Edward Towers; Reduction of Enteric Methane Emission in a Commercial Dairy Farm by a Novel Feed Supplement, Open Journal of Animal Sciences, Vol.9 No.3, July 2019.
• 2018 Government GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 2018
• What’s the carbon footprint of … a cup of tea or coffee? The Guardian, 17 June 2010
• Brades Farm
• Mootral
• Oatly Sustainability Report 2018
• Alpro Sustainability Update 2018
• The cows that could help fight climate change; Geoff Watts, BBC Global News, 2019
• M.Yuttitham, Shabbir H.Gheewala, A.Chidthaisong; Carbon footprint of sugar produced from sugarcane in eastern Thailand, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol 19, Issues 17-18, November – December 2011.
• Carlos A.García, Edgar S.García-Treviño, Noe Aguilar-Rivera, Cynthia Armendáriz; Carbon footprint of sugar production in Mexico, Vol 112, Part 4, January 2016.

2 thoughts on “Milk Matters: Small changes can dramatically lower your coffee’s carbon footprint

  1. An excellent example of virtue signalling ………….life’s too short for this malarky !

  2. An excellent example of virtue signalling !

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