In honor of Earth Month, Oola's Everyday Sustainability is here to inspire you to become more eco-savvy! We've rounded up our favorite green products, lifestyle tips, and guides for living a sustainable life.

Moo-ve over, cow milk; 2% is practically a relic in today’s age of plant-based milk alternatives. Plant-based options are generally assumed to be healthier, more sustainable, and less damaging to animals—but you know what happens when you assume.

One of the most popular plant-based milk options—almond—is also the most ecologically destructive. Since the early 2000s, the almond milk industry has grown from a niche market to an unsustainable behemoth.

It’s time for us, the consumers, to make the switch. But there’s no need to cry over spilled milk; we explore great-tasting alternatives that will make you forget about almond milk altogether.

The Skyrocket Rise (and Fall) of Almond Milk

SINGAPORE - JUNE 11, 2017: Variety brand of Soy milk pack on shelves in a supermarket. Soy milk is a plant based drink produced by soaking dried soybeans and grinding them in water.

From 2010 to 2015, the almond milk industry grew by 250%, and it’s easy to see why this creamy beverage became so popular. Almond milk is soy-free, dairy-free, and vegan-friendly. Plus, studies show that plant-based milk production is significantly less damaging to the environment than dairy farming.

Unfortunately, "significantly less" doesn't mean "none whatsoever." The University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) Office of Sustainability lists bee endangerment and unsustainable water usage as almond milk production’s two biggest environmental hazards, and there’s ample evidence to prove it.

The mysterious mass death of more than one-third of the US' commercial bee colonies prompted an investigation by The Guardian that revealed an unsuspecting culprit: almond milk. Another eye-opening exposè from The New York Times reported 15.3 gallons of water are needed to create just 16 almonds. California alone produces more than 2 billion almonds a year, adding up to over 2.5 million gallons of water.

Extinction, Sinkholes, Droughts, and More

Road sign reading "severe drought limit outdoor watering"

California produces 80% of the world’s almond milk supply and the landscape is paying for it. This map from Mother Jones shows California counties with the most almond production and groundwater well depletion; the two areas practically overlap.

That’s because almond farmers in California have resorted to pumping water from underground aquifers, which results in widespread droughts, wildfires, sinkholes, and land subsidence. In the San Joaquin Valley, the land surface has sunk nearly 28 feet over the last 100 years. Statewide, over four million acres were burned by wildfires in 2020 alone.

Additionally, The Guardian’s buzzworthy investigation into widespread bee deaths found that pesticide exposure, habitat loss, and “industrial mechanization of one of nature’s most delicate natural processes” contributed to the loss of nearly 50 billion bees tasked with pollinating California’s almond orchards. Organic, pesticide-free almond farming has helped to maintain the dwindling bee population, but more still needs to be done to keep the golden state, land of milk and honey, from turning into a sunken, bee-less pit.

And since tackling statewide crises as an individual can be a bit overwhelming, we recommend one small, manageable step: switching to a different plant-based milk alternative.

Oat Milk

Glass of oat milk next to loose oats

One of the most environmentally-friendly plant-based milk options out there is oat milk. A life cycle assessment (LCA) conducted by Oatly in Sweden found that oat milk generates 80% lower greenhouse emissions than cow’s milk. Oat milk production also uses about 80% less land and 60% less energy use.

Commercial oat milk is made from milling oats with water, adding enzymes to the mixture to break down the oat starch, and separating the bran (loose oat shells) from the oats themselves. This loose fiber, known as beta-glucans, has been shown to offer health benefits by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Oat milk is dairy, lactose, soy, and nut-free. Compared to other plant-based alternatives, oat milk contains more fiber, carbohydrates, and calories. Mooala’s unsweetened coconut oat milk is an excellent option for 100% organic, gluten-free goodness fortified with calcium and fiber.

Soy Milk

Jars of soy milk next to soy beans

Soy milk has been around for decades and is arguably the OG of all plant-based milk. Environmental scientist Joseph Poore compiled and analyzed data on international food production’s environmental impact and spoke to what the data said about soy on the Science Vs. podcast.

Poore explains that while soy is far more sustainable than dairy, the crop needs significantly more land than almonds and rice. Some of the world’s soy supply grows in recently razed sections of the Amazon and savannah, which gives soy a “very high carbon footprint,” says Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust.

Nutritionally, fortified soy milk is an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, and research shows it can also benefit the kidneys. To keep soy’s carbon footprint as small as possible, we recommend avoiding brands that source their soy from South America.

Hemp and Flax Milk

Jar of hemp milk next to hemp seeds and leaves in a bowl

Hemp and flax milk are new to the plant-based milk market, but their small carbon footprints make them a promising, more sustainable option than almond, rice, or soy. Hemp and flax crops benefit the soil, require fewer pesticides and fertilizers, and consume low-impact amounts of water.

According to Virtua Health Care, hemp and flax milk typically contain around eight grams of protein per cup compared to other non-dairy milk alternatives’ two grams. These types of milk contain more fat but fewer carbohydrates and calories than cow’s milk. Hemp and flax milk are also great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Like any new beverage, the first formulas might be less than stellar. Hemp and flax milk formulas will only get better with time as more and more brands perfect their eco-friendly recipes.

Hazelnut Milk

Glass of hazelnut milk next to loose hazelnuts and vanilla bean pods

Hazelnuts’ warm, sweet, peanut-chocolatey flavor has long been associated with Ferrero Rocher candies and Nutella spreads, but what about hazelnut milk? Brands like Elmhurst 1925 and Pacific Foods have ushered in a new kid on the block, and it’s as good for us as it is for the planet.

The hazelnut milk market industry is projected to reach $153.2 million by 2027, but bees and aquifers need worry not. For starters, hazelnut trees are pollinated by the wind, not bees. Second, hazelnut trees grow in already-moist areas like the Pacific Northwest, making the crops' water consumption less problematic.

Hazelnut milk is naturally gluten-, lactose-, and soy-free, relatively low in calories, and is a good source of vitamins and antioxidants.

Homemade Almond Milk

Almonds soaking in water in bowl next to glass of almond milk, spoon full of almonds

For those who still can’t bear to part with the unique, nutty flavor of almond milk, UCSF’s Sustainability Office suggests making your own. While it might not be a cheaper option, it’s certainly a more sustainable (and fun) one.

Homemade almond milk requires just two ingredients, a blender, and 10 minutes. Making almond milk from scratch allows for full control over the water used and additional flavorings like sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. The leftover almond pulp can be made into almond meal and used in a variety of recipes.

Ultimately, the onus of saving the world can and should not fall to someone who prefers a splash of almond milk in their morning coffee. A 2017 report found that just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988, so the problem clearly isn’t the individual consumer.

However, we can and should exert our own form of market power, thoughtful consumerism: buying organic, ethically sourced products that nourish our bodies, souls, and planet.

Related Reading

  1. The Tastiest Dairy-Free Milk Substitutes You'll Ever Try
  2. Oat Milk: Benefits, Nutrition and How to Make it
  3. This Is Why the FDA Wants Us to Stop Calling Almond Milk "Milk"
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