Week 31: I will be a curious consumer.
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
What has changed?
In my opinion, this is one of the world’s most powerful questions. It is especially good on those days in life, love or work where nothing seems right, and where the day is filled with inexplicable moments that defy logic. Where your eyes are aching with confusion, or when your brain is trying to escape through your ears and your stomach is in your throat.
I have learned that when something new happens, it is often because somewhere out in the big cosmic ether of interconnections, something has changed. Figuring where this thread of change begins helps to soften surprises, and understand why others might have seemingly made new decisions that you had no idea they were going to make the day before. It also sometimes helps understand why you have to do something differently, and why you must take a new or different path. Something changes, and so you must also.
This is quite a deep thought to have, considering that it came to me whilst contemplating our little boy’s breakfast cereal. Or rather, contemplating his enormous bowl of milk, that had the occasional Cheerio floating in it. And his glass of milk on the side.
Leo loves cow's milk. He likes it despite anything we have done. We didn’t try and force it, much like we didn’t tell him what vehicles or toys to choose as his favourites, and much like we didn’t tell him what colours or clothes he should wear. He just chose it, just like he chose yellow as his favourite colour and for a time, a wooden lemon as his favourite toy.
I am not saying that his love of milk is genetic, and this week’s change is not directly about the choices that our children make. The choices and the fleeting desires of a child appear to me to be the only category exempt from ever asking the universe what changed. The mind of a child is as mysterious to me as it is full of wonder.
He does not appear to measure his love of milk in anything but satisfaction. His love of the wooden lemon was equally visceral, and when he changed this choice of favourite toy you could not say it was because his brain had developed in some way to desire a more complex item. His next choice was a small peg doll of a blonde lady, that he liked because he could stick it on his finger and make her go on adventures.
This week’s change instead began as making a planetwise choice around milk. It was partly inspired by last week's entry about making bread great again, as milk is another product that is often under our nose, but at the same time not considered deeply in terms of its impact on the planet. Something that seemingly appears out of thin air and is used in everything from your morning latte, your afternoon treat or your evening hot chocolate. We just open the fridge, and we expect milk to be there.
It started there, but then once I started to reflect, it started to take another direction, once I had begun to research a balanced choice and common ground. Instead, this week's planetwise change is more of a reflection. A reflection on change, and what it can do to our perceptions and behaviour.
Milk is a good topic to reflect on in this way, because it turns out that our love of animal milk is a topic that draws division in a way that I did not expect. I was faced with quite a lot of surprising information. Many organisations are pretty definitive with a view that we should not, and if we do then we are taking the most serious liberties with our planet and with the animals we share it with. You can try it yourself, simply by asking your search engine why you should not drink milk.
This can range from environmental to animal welfare arguments, but it was not the scale of the debate that I found surprising, but more of the tone and the simplicity of what was being said.
This is what I was contemplating as I watched a whole pint disappearing into a 4-year old, at barely 7 o’clock in the morning.
I was contemplating for example, how it never used to be the case that you thought about milk. If you rewind to my own childhood, then milk would arrive on our doorstep, in jangling glass bottles, hand delivered around the neighbourhood on an electric milk float. Our milkman was Wally, and we considered him a friend.
After you’d finished with it, you’d then leave the empties out in the evening, and they would be taken away by the same vehicle, for washing and reuse. So far, this is absolutely in line with any choice you might make to be kind to our planet in our consumption. In fact, an electric vehicle delivering a natural product in a reusable container, somehow feels like some romantic vision for the future, not from the past.
I was also reflecting about simple answers that tell us that we must or must-not do something, and especially those that appear to be trying to create fear or guilt. The tactic of creating fear and division, is against all the reasons that I started making planetwise choices. Being planetwise, was more about trying to find common ground, and understanding how to make the best choices that are free of activism.
I am also suspicious of simple answers. I am suspicious of anyone seemingly trying to use a hammer to change our opinions, and it makes me curious to find out more. And when thinking about how to find out more, I came back to my trusted approach of figuring out what had changed. What had changed from milk being an accepted product that was universally loved by those who were able to drink it, to something that should be avoided at all costs? What changed from the perception of milk as a beneficial product, to one that somehow was contributing to our collective destruction of the planet? Does all milk have three times the environmental impact of alternatives? Three times?
This led me down a very complicated tunnel, with very little clear light at the end. One that discussed emissions, practices, locations, land use, and even cow farts. It did confirm that cows as a creature have not changed. It revealed just how many alternatives exist, that may be kinder to the planet, or kinder to the creatures that provide our food. It confirmed that rejecting the consumption of milk, is also somehow connected to the same growing pressure towards plant-based diets, in the sense that we need to begin and continue to make good choices for our health and for the planet. And that our choices over what we eat and drink, and how it creates patterns of land use and of practices that are difficult to reverse and become dangerously normal.
Much like plant-based eating, I agreed with everything, but it also left me with lots of questions, and conflicts.
Questions about how we generalise information in a way that paints entire industries as bad guys, and alternative products as the good guys. Conflicted thoughts about the power we wield over the creatures we share our planet with, and the value we put on their lives.
Questions over what I observe, living in one of the biggest farming regions in our country - but also the conflict and the worry about what I don't see. Agreement that the life of a chicken should not cost £3, but also the niggling sense that we should not put all producers in one bracket, considering for example that milk can come from co-operatives of small farms, as well as large industrial producers. That we can sometimes be as blind to good practices, as we can ignore the bad ones.
Faced with all this information, and much like the arguments I have read regarding plant-based diets, a common ground, and a reason for our change in perception of a natural product, seems to be driven to an extent by commoditisation.
In other words, it has not been a sudden awakening that milk is bad for the planet, and that oats or almonds are the saviours. It is more that farming methods have changed. Or maybe the pressure on farming has changed. From what I can read the pressure to focus on volume and cost over welfare and sustainability, has changed our way of producing milk. It has led to changes in methods, and has led to a different view of animal welfare, than before. It has led to commoditisation of a natural product, which in turn seems to lead to our treatment of animals as a commodity. This is a path that should rightly be rejected, but we have to take some responsibility as consumers for this change.
To learn more, you can look up the price we are prepared to pay for milk, versus the alternatives in the level playing field of the supermarket. No matter where you stand on the principle of milk, this can be a common ground to compare the scenarios that our milk producers face versus alternatives. Price and value that we put on comparable products can help us to understand the pressure that producers face. This is because in the end anything we buy is generally made by someone who set out to make a quality product, and whilst doing that, make a living.
The price we are prepared to pay also has a direct line back to how something is made. A direct line to everything that is involved from when there is nothing, to when there is something, and everyone and everything in between. And for milk, the fact is that we are prepared to pay approximately half the price of cow's milk per litre in a regular supermarket, then we will for any of the alternatives available. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.
I found this quite thought provoking, as it shows sometimes how changes can knock off our expectations, with reality. Our expectation of quality milk several decades ago, included our expectation that we pay a fair price. The way that farming has changed, appear to me to be a symptom or a reaction to pressure. It has also created a mismatch in our expectations versus what can be delivered. We want it cheap, but we want standards to continue to be high.
If we then consider a milk producer, who is trying to make a living, but who finds market prices for milk declining. On the surface, there are not too many options about how to save costs. It would tend to be through how much milk you can extract from your milk production apparatus, and how cheaply you can manage this apparatus. And when these machines happen to be creatures of our planet, then the path will generally lead to welfare, to pesticides and chemicals.
That being said, when faced with this change, not milk producers have chosen to increase production and reduce costs, and this is where generalised arguments that pitch products against products, become more complicated. It is where a generalised claim that an industry is bad for the planet, does not consider that all producers chose the same path. And when it comes to milk, it also means that not all producers chose to commoditise.
Some chose another, harder path when faced with a change, but a path that can give common ground to this discussion. It also gives us a chance to go back to the future, as some producers did not stop doorstep deliveries of milk at all.
We have personal experience of this, as quite by accident we have been receiving milk deliveries from our local milk supplier, to the doorstep, for the last few years but didn't ever really think about it. We thought we were lucky to have someone nearby, but at the same time we simply picked up from where the previous owners of our house left off. It would arrive in the middle of the night, via a pick-up rather than an electric float, until our independent milk provider could not make it work economically anymore, and with a heartfelt thanks to his customers had to stop.
We then by chance began to receive deliveries from Acorn Dairies, who we found through research and are local to us in the sense that the farm is about 30 miles away. We felt luckier still. Acorn began producing organic milk, and began selling that directly to consumers in a journey that goes back to 1998, at which time I am sure it was a difficult and challenging decision.
Reading about what they do, is also an inspirational illustration about how you can love the planet, and produce milk - something I think we often forget. About how you can work with the land, and create not only a good product, but a wider impact through practices and methods that encourages nature. As a personal example, they recently changed our delivery day, in a move to reduce the number of deliveries and the number of vehicles they put on the road. This kind of change, is the opposite of our expectations of consumers, where we expect to say when and how something arrives, and that our answer is probably 'now'. But instead, I find this is wonderfully disruptive way of managing a business in a planetwise way.
It feels to me, that Acorn have found a way to escape the dangerous generalisations of commodity products, and the more we can do to support these suppliers and their networks, in my opinion the better. You can read about what they do here.
It also gives an alternative idea or an alternative choice to our consumption of milk, that came from asking what changed. We should try and make choices that reduce our consumption of commoditised milk, and try what is out there as an alternative. But we should also consider that plant-based alternatives may have been intensively farmed, shipped thousands of miles and not necessarily packaging in a kind or recyclable way. Mass produced milk alternatives are better for the planet than industrialised farming, but I would question whether they are better, full stop. You can also find a planetwise way by thinking smaller, or more local, or more simply.
This is my opinion, and I have to admit that I have a vested interest as a lover of milk. Our Acorn milk frankly tastes amazing, and I love the connection I feel through the news and work they do with customers. I love hearing where the cows are, and the daily challenges and successes of the farm. But also the dairy has recently been awarded a higher mark on the Ethical Consumer site than the leading brand of oak milk. A clear 2.5 points higher on the 20-point scale.
We will also continue to apply this thinking to other natural products, where we can. Seeking out organic, or local, is a good way to remove commoditisation from your diet. We are all connected, and everything we can do can make a difference.
I have been delighted to read that recently, that we are not alone in this opportunity to choose better milk. Doorstep milk deliveries have been on the increase. There is growing information available online for consumers to find their local milk delivery dairies, and I think this is a wonderful thing. A good site to check out is Farmers Weekly, which has an interactive map of where you can buy milk direct from the farm. Often, alongside the milk, producers will create a network with like-minded businesses to provide other products that meet the expectations of being organic and local, or deliver more products themselves, which gives the additional benefit of being able to source butter, eggs, bread or other staples in a way that may be kinder to the planet than your regular method.
This week is also at the heart of what we are trying to do this year. To consider giving things up before switching to alternatives. To challenge every choice we make, and habits that we have made over a lifetime, and that we are passing to our own family. To question everything, even if it creates debates, because through going through internal conflict about these choices, it encourages us to uncover the facts and truth, and allows us to make our own choices whilst still respecting the choices of others.
If in doubt, asking what has changed, is a good place to start. By asking what has changed, we can change what we do, but in this case also continue in a conscious way. It may continue to be an unpopular wider choice, but right now we will choose well-sourced milk above alternatives or above removing milk from our family's diet.