The explosion in veganism in recent years is great news for animal rights, for the environment and for our health. As veganism branches into the mainstream its great news for our taste buds too. There are more brands than ever using innovative techniques and experimenting with different plants to bring us a wide selection of plant-based cheese and milk.
Whatever your reason for cutting out the cow, you’ll want to make sure that your vegan cash is going to the right companies, those that respect and support veganism, who treat their workers fairly and who put the environment at the centre of their business. With so much choice, it can be easy to lose this focus.
Tim Hunt from Ethical Consumer Magazine sheds some light on the brands behind some of the most popular plant-based milk and cheese to help you make an informed decision.
Values in your wallet
There have been several news stories lately criticising the plant-based milk industry. Deforestation, pesticides and excessive water use have all made the headlines. While there are clearly some issues in supply chains and there are improvements to be made, these negative headlines are hiding an important message. When it comes to the environment, animal rights and often workers’ rights, any and all plant-based milk and cheese are better than their dairy alternatives.
So, whichever brand you choose, you are already making a great decision. That said, there are some clear winners out there when it comes to doing good in the alternative milk aisle. Meet the brands who are tackling ethics head-on and choose your favourite.
Keeping it natural
Look out for brands that source organic ingredients wherever possible. Organic regulations mean that farming techniques automatically provide better workers’ rights by removing exposure to harmful pesticides and fertilisers. This is good news for consumers too as these chemicals are kept out of the products. Almond and oat production can use large quantities of pesticides, so only choose organic brands if these are your favourite plant-milk tipples.
We recommend Oatly’s organic oat milk, which is screened to guarantee a glyphosate-free product. Good Hemp is another great brand producing milk from naturally weed and pest-resistant hemp seeds. For vegan cheese, try Happy Cashew or Mouse’s Favourite, the parent companies only sell organic plant-based cheese.
Opt for Fairtrade and stand up for workers’ rights
You might think Fairtrade when it comes to bananas and chocolate but not necessarily when it comes to cheese and milk. Yet some of the ingredients in both are part of unfair markets and depend on smallholders with little bargaining power.
Products that include coconuts can be the most problematic. Most coconuts are grown independently in Indonesia, the Philippines and India by smallholders. Although smallholders operate their own farms, the market price for the product is often volatile. Coconut plantations are a long-term commitment as it takes time to grow the trees. This means that farmers, who have often invested a lot, can be trapped by unfair prices, unable to swap to a more profitable crop.
By buying Fairtrade coconut milk from brands like Lucy Bee you help farmers to access a fair price. Many of the supermarket vegan cheese contains coconut, as does some of the cheese owned by large dairy brands, and most are not Fairtrade. Look out for the logo and only buy brands that demonstrate their role in keeping producer’s prices fair.
Workers’ rights should also be top of the list when it comes to choosing an ethical brand. Many of the smaller brands are independent businesses working from their own factories but they make sure that workers’ rights are incorporated throughout their supply chain. Tyne Chease regularly audits its suppliers for ethical standards and working conditions and Happy Cheeze ensures that cashews are sourced from suppliers who use machines to shell the nuts, protecting workers from the acids that are sometimes used to separate the nuts and can cause pain and severe damage to their skin.
Wrap it up
Packaging plays a big part in the overall sustainability of milk and cheese. Cheese is perhaps the most problematic as most come wrapped in plastic for preservation. That said, New Roots provides its cheese in 100% recyclable packaging, Mouse’s Favourite includes some compostable packaging and Happy Cashew provides returnable ice packs for its mail-order products.
Look out for local plant-based cheese producers who may be able to pop cheese directly into your own containers. There are more and more artisan producers emerging all over the country.
Don’t support dairy
It’s strange to think that buying vegan products can actually support the dairy industry. Thanks to the surge in veganism many big-name brands have jumped into the vegan market. When you buy these brands, you are inadvertently funding the dairy industry.
Danone, which owns the huge brand Alpro, produces dairy products and has been criticised for testing on animals and irresponsibly pushing infant formula to developing countries.
Similarly, many vegan cheese brands have been bought out by larger businesses or are dairy brand spin-offs.
Brands to watch include:
· Vitalite which is owned by Saputo, a Canadian cheese company that processes 11 billion litres of milk a year.
· Violife which is owned by investment firm KKR, a company that funds pharmaceuticals that test on animals and a company that produces meat products.
· Mozzarisella, an organic rice-milk based cheese that is owned by an Italian dairy company.
Remember, whichever plant-based brand you choose, you are already making a great decision by stepping away from dairy. There are so many small and growing brands out there creating excellent products with ethics at the very heart of what they do. Shop local, find companies that support your values and enjoy the huge variety of tastes and types of vegan milk and cheese.
To find out more about going dairy-free, visit our Dairy Alternatives resource here.
For more information on ethical consumerism and to see our detailed guides on everything from shampoo to washing machines, visit the Ethical Consumer website.