Plant-Based Milks: A Niche Product?
Plant-based milks are growing in popularity. It’s an encouraging trend that has been a long time coming, and it’s a trend that many animal advocates have been celebrating. This article, published in Elsevier’s journal of Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, looks to better understand the market dynamics of the milk industry more broadly, with a case study of the rise of plant-based milk (PBM) in the United Kingdom. Two important concepts in the study of sustainable transitions are “niche” and “regime.” “Niche” refers to things that are new (e.g. new products, social values) whereas “regime” refers to things that are part of the “norm” (e.g. traditional behaviors, large companies). By examining the interplay between PBM (niche) and dairy milk (regime), the authors present new insights into how sustainable transitions play out in the food space.
Over the last decade, PBM has undoubtedly gained significant popularity in Western countries. In the U.K., PBM sales went up 40% between 2011 and 2013, and a 2015 study found that 18% of U.K. customers drink PBM. However, a 2016 study conducted in the U.S. found that many consumers of PBM still drink dairy milk as well. To investigate this increase in PBM’s popularity, the authors analyzed 109 secondary documents published between June and July 2016. These documents included various types of sources including dietary guidelines, legal documents, and PBM product websites. The authors also conducted, transcribed, and analyzed 6 semi-structured interviews with a range of PBM experts. Finally, the authors analyzed PBM packaging along with conversations about PBM from a focus group.
The authors found that plant-based milk developers and marketers use a variety of strategies to attract customers. On the one hand, PBM is developed and packaged to taste and look like dairy milk. On the other hand, PBM differentiates itself through claims of being healthier and more environmentally sustainable. Another strategy that PBM developers have used is diversification of their products. For example, there are many varieties of PBM, with bases from oats to rice. Additionally, supermarkets have been an important player in the rise of PBM. They have provided shelf-space, made their own brands (which are often more affordable), and cemented PBM’s status as a mainstream grocery product. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also helped promote PBM, often through campaigns that raise awareness about the ethical, environmental, and health problems of dairy milk.
Of course, the dairy industry has developed defensive strategies to protect their sales. Such strategies range from increasing production to bringing legal cases against dairy’s detractors. The dairy industry also funds advertisements that reinforce the long-standing and widely-accepted belief that dairy milk is healthy and normal. Nevertheless, we are past the days where all of society unquestioningly puts dairy milk on a pedestal.
In several western countries, governmental agricultural policies still widely support dairy production. For example, in response to complaints from the dairy industry, PBM products in the U.K. can no longer use the word “milk” on their packaging. Likewise, national nutritional guidelines still encourage dairy consumption as part of a healthy diet. However, these nutritional guidelines have also started including PBM as valid options. Furthermore, the U.K.’s 2016 edition of the “Eat Well Guide” from Public Health England recommended 50% fewer daily calories from dairy compared to the previous edition. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the dairy industry successfully lobbied the U.S. health department in 2015, leading to even greater amounts of dairy recommended in national dietary guidelines.
All in all, transitions to PBM involve numerous “niche-regime interactions,” as new and old ideas about dairy milk face off. Drawing from their case study on PBM, the authors make several conceptual contributions to the field of sustainable transitions. Whereas previous studies focused on how the niche influences the regime, the authors claim that the regime can in turn influence the niche. For example, competition from store-brand PBM can push niche PBM pioneers to improve their products and prices. Expanding further, the authors suggest that the food system is structured like an hourglass: there are many farmers and consumers at each end, but only a few large food distributors in the middle acting as gatekeepers. These gatekeepers are more interesting in staying in business than in being loyal to a particular product. Therefore, despite being part of the regime, major food distributors are often willing to embrace new products and even participate in shaping their trajectory. Future studies on sustainable food transitions should pay attention to these unique structural factors.
The authors next claim is that the highly social nature of food makes social influence (e.g. NGO campaigns) crucial in mainstream acceptance of new food products. Many other niche ideas originate from technology startups then become adopted by the public. With food, however, the public may play an active role in urging the development of new products. Finally, the authors point out that previous studies model the spread of innovations as either fitting into existing spaces in the regime (“fit”) or transforming the regime to make their own space (“stretch”). When it comes to food innovations, the authors suggest that a fit-and-stretch hybrid model may be most accurate. For example, PBM finds its place in established supermarkets, but also disrupts the cultural narrative around dairy milk.
The findings of this study can inform advocacy efforts for plant-based foods, and especially plant-based milk, as its popularity continues to grow. For example, plant-based food advocates can encourage supermarkets to carry a range of plant-based food items. Additionally, advocates can educate the public about the harmful effects of animal products, thereby promoting plant-based products through social influence. A final takeaway from this study is the need for advocates to match lobbying efforts from the animal agriculture industry, whose influence on nutrition guidelines and government policy is alarming.