Spilling the ‘soya’ beans on ethical vegan milk

Thursday, 7 December, 2017

Soya, almond, coconut, hazelnut, oat, cashew, rice and even hemp and quinoa, there’s a non-dairy milk alternative for everyone now. Whether your ditching the dairy for health benefits, sustainability or animal rights, we now have more choice than ever. But not all vegan milks are created equal. Tim Hunt of Ethical Consumer spills the beans on the ethics behind some of the most popular milk alternatives.

At Ethical Consumer, we provide the tools that consumers need to make ethical choices. Over the years, we’ve run over 40,000 reports on a wide variety of companies, brands and products.

This month, we have turned our attention to non-dairy alternatives to milk. As more people turn to plant-based alternatives for the creamy additions to their tea, cereal and cooking, they embrace the view that it is better for them, better for the environment and better for the people that grow and the supply these products. But when it comes to vegan milk, we find that there are a wide range of ethics on show, from squeaky clean organic, Fair Trade products to those that are embroiled in human and animal rights issues.

Don’t worry – help is at hand. We take you through our findings to help you choose your perfect plant-based milk. You can also find loads more information about the brands producing milk alternatives in our full guide on the Ethical Consumer website. 

Nuts, beans or seeds – it’s not all about taste

There are so many different types of milk, each with a different nut, bean, or seed base ingredient. Taste is usually the most important factor when it comes to choosing a type of milk, but there are several ethical considerations that should take priority. We look at some of the most popular base ingredients.


Soya farming has long been associated with deforestation but, although this is a valid concern, only 6% of global soya produced is consumed by humans, the remaining 94% is used in animal feed. Soya is by far the most efficient way to produce protein, it is nutritionally most similar to dairy milk, and it uses approximately 28% of the water required for dairy production . There are two main sustainable certifications that producers will look to obtain, and which you can look out for on milk cartons: The Roundtable on Responsible Soya (RTRS) and ProTerra. Both of these schemes have faced criticism for setting low standards for manufacturers, but ProTerra does ensure no GM soya

Our recommendations: If you do choose soya milk, try to avoid South American soya, which is widely linked to deforestation, and choose certified organic milk wherever possible.    For more information on the ethics behind soya products read our Soya and Deforestation report.


The massive surge in popularity of coconut water in recent years has seen a rise in coconut production, as well as a beneficial use of a previous waste product, but this growth in popularity hasn’t benefited farmers in the same way as it has the manufacturers. There is crippling poverty in this industry with some farmers earning as little as $72 a year . Added to this, coconut trees have low yields and productivity, particularly as the trees age, which generates additional costs for growers. There are also no fair-trade schemes set up for coconut milk production.

Our recommendations: We recommend avoiding coconut milk until there is a fair-trade scheme and farmers are paid fair wages for their product.


Almond milk has seen the greatest increase in popularity in recent years, overtaking soya milk sales . The main concern with almond milk production is the huge amounts of water required, over 929 litres of water is needed to make just one litre of almond milk . With much of the world’s almonds grown in drought-blighted California, there are questions about the sustainability of such production. There are also issues with overworked honey bees in almond production and this, along with widespread pesticide use, is causing a declining bee population, meaning farmers are resorting to importing hives .

Our recommendations: Try to avoid almond milk. If you do decide to drink it, do so only in moderation and shop for organic milk.


Although less water-intensive than almond milk production, one litre of rice milk still requires approximately 123 litres of water . But the greater problem with rice production is greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, rice paddies contribute to 1.2% of total greenhouse gas emissions and at least 10% of the total agricultural emissions .   

Our recommendations: Due to the water use and significant contribution to global warming, we recommend avoiding rice milk wherever possible.

Wherever possible, we recommend choosing a brand that scores highly in our report and purchasing directly from the manufacturer or from an ethical reseller. You can find our who scores best in our milk alternatives guide on the Ethical Consumer website. 

Make your own milk

We have been overwhelmed by the creativity of our readers who make their own vegan milk. Some with some pretty interesting base ingredients and wacky added extras. The great thing about making your own milk is that you get to choose exactly what goes into your it. You can guarantee Fair Trade and organic ingredients and adjust the blend to make your preferred taste balance. But be aware that your milk won’t contain the added vitamins and minerals that many manufacturers add to their milk, so you must be sure to get these added elements elsewhere in your diet. One Ethical Consumer reader, Caroline Whelpton, gives us her ultimate oaty milk recipe:

Share your recipes

We’d love to hear your recipes. Add your comments below and tell us how you make your perfect pint!

Tim Hunt is co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. Discover more reports on hundreds of brands, companies and products at







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