• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Is the University of Edinburgh’s plant-based milk surcharge discrimination?

ByAngus Hennessy

Feb 5, 2024
A wall of plant-based milks in a supermarket.

Around the University of Edinburgh, cafes are charging 40p extra for anyone who wants to order plant-based milk in their coffee. This, along with a charge for single-use cups, can raise the price of a coffee by up to 70p. The question is, is this fair?

The charge on anyone not bringing their own cup to the café was implemented in the 2018/19 academic year and is a good way to reduce waste and improve sustainability. Why, then, is the university charging customers more for choosing more environmentally friendly plant-based milks over dairy? This shows a degree of inconsistency and half-heartedness in their commitment towards sustainability. It should be obvious that environmentally conscious people shouldn’t be punished for making choices that are better for the climate, especially when the university advertises itself as a leader in sustainability and climate research. This charge does nothing but tax good environmental practice. If anything, the tax should be the other way around, discouraging people from choosing less sustainable food options in the same way that single-use cups are taxed.

On top of this, it is predicted that around 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, so by charging more for plant-based milks, the university is discriminating against most people for something they can’t control. Some, like The Guardian, have even claimed that this policy contributes towards dietary racism, as a disproportionate amount of lactose intolerant people are from minority ethnic groups. While racial discrimination may not be their goal, the effect is the same regardless of intent.

Luckily, all of this can be fixed. By dropping the surcharge on plant-based milks, the university would make its cafes more accessible for people with dietary restrictions and those who are environmentally conscious.

While some might argue that this surcharge exists because plant-based milks are more expensive, getting rid of it would attract more customers looking for good quality, sustainable and affordable beverages. It would also encourage others to choose these environmentally friendly options where before they may not have due to inconvenience. Normalising and standardising plant-based milks would also contribute to an economy of scale, bridging the cost gap between plant milk and dairy products.

We know that this can be done. In fact, EUSA venues around Edinburgh don’t have a surcharge on plant-based milks. This not only adds to the confusion and inconsistency of pricing on campuses, but also begs the question of why the university-run cafes can’t do the same. This has been a noticeable trend in the UK in the last few years, with companies like Starbucks, Costa and Pret a Manger dropping their plant milk tax. With such large changes happening across the country, it is surprising that the university has fallen behind. Nevertheless, we can expect that as more companies scrap their plant milk charges, there will be more demand than ever for them to do the same.

Photo via Archie Ashley