Dairy Insight: Plant versus Cow

* 9 min read
Sustainability Communication, where is the grass greener? Over the past couple of years, the huge growth in plant-based foods and dairy-free products in the UK has led us to believe that these are better both nutritionally and environmentally.

The numbers back it up, with one in three Britons now drinking plant-based milk. We even have a month dedicated to all things plant-based, with Veganuary encouraging us to exclude anything animal related from our diets.

Up until now, the growth of dairy-alternatives could be attributed to their proactive approach to being more sustainable. Good branding and engaging packaging design have promoted the benefits of plant-based products for health, climate change and animal welfare, with powerful validations from celebrity influencers propelling the sector’s commercial success. Swedish brand Oatly is a good example, achieving mainstream status in 2020 with sales in the US growing to 476%, thanks to a combination of quirky marketing and good timing.

filters quality90 formatwebp2Image Source: Oatly

Other brands we’ve worked with, such as Mighty Drinks, have created a narrative around their environmental credentials with packaging design that headlines the positive impact that plant M.LK has on our planet. Our recent launch of their M.LKology range goes far beyond sustainable messaging, to establish the brand as a credible match to the taste and texture of real milk.

MmilkImage Source: VegWorld Magazine

But the grass is not always greener for plant-based products. Labelling ‘Vegan’ is no longer sufficient to convince health-seekers that a brand is either responsible or nutritious. We are waking up to the benefits of dairy, as companies and brands become more vocal about the importance of having dairy as part of a more planet-sensitive diet; effectively aligning their eco strategies with consumer health concerns. As Matt Knight, managing director of The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers states in a report published ahead of 2021’s Cop 26.


"The dairy sector, along with other areas of agriculture, is often used as a scapegoat when it comes to emissions, with ‘belching’ cows regularly hitting the headlines in the national press"

Matt Knight, managing director, The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers

The reality is that less than 3% of total emissions come from UK dairy farming, with UK dairy cows being some of the most climate friendly in the world. The report also talks about climate efficiencies, comparing the eight litres of tap water it takes to produce one litre of milk to the 158 litres of tap water to produce one litre of almond milk. Although, it’s worth mentioning that Pea M.LK uses significantly less water than this. Knight adds, “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to spread the good work of the dairy industry and reinforce the fact dairy products aren’t only good for human health, they are also good for the planet too.”

Dairy companies like Arla are at the forefront of addressing consumer concerns on the environment. They are strengthening their organic proposition by taking a clear stance in four key areas: climate impact, biodiversity, nature and animal welfare, which resonate with organic consumers who express a particularly strong interest in how products are produced from an ethical point of view.

15 truck2Image Source: Arla

Cravendale’s pollinating “Bee Road” initiative engages the ethics of consumers “How to make a bee hotel”, B.O.B “How to make a bee friendly planter” and how to make a bee bath with Arla’s Big Milk. There’s a Bee Road Game to pollinate flowers. If you had a Nokia 6210 circa 2002, prepare to reminisce.

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Source: Arla (click here to play the game)

Arla’s pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2050 is backed up by their plans to transition to renewable energy, using cattle feed that generates less methane gas. They have even created a ‘cow pattery’ to show the potential power in the poo. And with over 1.4M tonnes of cow slurry available in the UK each year from Arla’s 2400 farms alone, they promise enough cow poo power to supply 4% of UK households. That’s around 1.2 million homes. Impressive!

5458ad6f0c6c448e912b43b6a1a21cb4Image Source: Arla

All the good work that Arla is doing in building a more sustainable dialogue with its consumers is further enhanced at shelf level with its wood-based bio plastic milk cartons, made from FSC certified Finnish wood. The revamp has made more than 40 million cartons annually more environmentally friendly in Finland and as a result, the carbon footprint of milk cartons is now about 20% smaller.

Arla UPMImage Source: Packaging Europe

Muller is another big dairy company doing some great work through its Müller Advantage programme which helps to incentivise the farmers that supply it with milk, improving the ecological impact of their farms, herd health and supply chains. Like Arla, they are thinking about all aspects of sustainability and not focusing on one specific issue. According to the Grocer, their farmers will be recompensed an extra 1p per litre for further reducing antibiotic use in their herds, sustainably sourcing animal feed, reducing energy and water use, recycling, and enhancing biodiversity.

It’s not just the co-operatives and big brands making a more sustainable case for dairy. Micro dairies are also growing in popularity, with a promise to ‘make milk ethical.’ For example, The Ethical Dairy, based in south-west Scotland, is pioneering a farming method that keeps cows and calves together for five months before weaning, rather than separating them shortly after birth. They were featured on Panorama's 'A Cow's Life: The True Cost of Milk?' (shown on UK Channel BBC One 14/02/22) and have since been overwhelmed with support and enquiries (for once, read the comments). A similar approach is being adopted by  The Calf at Foot Dairy in Northamptonshire; keeping baby calves with their mothers until their natural weaning age. Describing itself as a ‘calf-friendly, cow-kind micro-dairy,’ it claims you can ’taste the kindness’ in their product.

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Image Source: The Calf at Foot Dairy

Both brands benefit from having their philosophy as part of their brand name. The Ethical Dairy has a brand marque that effectively integrates their unique point of difference. However, the packaging design lacks focus with visual cliches that feel more aligned to the language of plant-based drinks. The copy could be stronger and has no stand-out which is a shame, given its strong ethical values. In contrast, The Calf at Foot Dairy is unashamedly traditional with a visual simplicity that enhances its authenticity and purpose. A perfectly balanced approach of old and new that really does feel ‘cow-kind.’ Interestingly, this brand is not certified organic. In fact, they challenge how effective these certifying bodies are in defining high levels of animal welfare.


“We are proudly unsigned, we don’t feel these certifying bodies do our methods and extremely high standards of welfare the justice it deserves!”

Fiona Provan, Founder, The calf at foot dairy

It’s a brave and forward-thinking point of view, that makes this brand so interesting; disrupting the boundaries of what is possible and positioning itself as working 'proudly outside the box'.

Other dairy brands are not communicating their values as effectively. Scottish ice-cream brand Mackie’s of Scotland recently invested £4m ($5.2m) in low-carbon refrigeration that runs on biomass energy, which will reduce its CO2 emissions by an impressive 90% this year. However, the brand doesn’t communicate the reasons behind it’s 'Taste the dairy difference' on pack. To compete more effectively amongst the noise of brand sustainability, it should big-up the facts around its own farm; its herd of Holstein milking cows and the advanced technology used to milk and maintain the herd and the soil health of the land. Powerful messaging from their website that should be distilled into the packaging design.

mackImage Source: Food Manufacture 

Looking ahead, there isn’t a single best practice strategy for dairy brands, with consumers advocating planet friendly diets that are increasingly complex. Labels like ‘topsoil-friendly' or ‘regenerative agriculture’ which should include practices such as ‘100% grass-fed’ and ‘water footprint’ will become increasingly important; reshaping industry norms, while animal welfare concerns will heighten as Gen Z gain more purchasing power.

Consumer First

Dairy brands leading the way are those with products that are more nuanced and diverse, covering a myriad of environmental and health concerns. Ultimately the winners will be authentic about their planet-friendly and ‘people considerate’ credentials and upfront about the way they communicate them. Creating powerful messaging and uncomplicated pack design that headline exactly HOW they are more sustainable.

Shaped by insight at Sun Strategy, we reflect the conscience of your consumers by combining imaginative creative with smart problem solving.

About the author

imageedit 1 6168940299Clare Leeland - Brand Strategy & Consumer Insight

Clare is a Client Partner and Project Manager. She specialises in brand strategy, consumer insight and packaging design. Clare has worked in packaging design across automotive manufacturing and FMCG brands, combining pragmatism with creativity, She's passionate about delivering effective design by getting the most out of client briefs and working closely with designers and insight agencies.

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