As an avid Chobani oat milk drinker, looking into the company’s environmental practices was a rollercoaster of emotions. Their ingredients are fairly good considering oat milk is one of the best milk alternatives when looking at water usage, land needed, and greenhouse gas emissions. However, Chobani is a very sketchy company when it comes to labeling its ingredients. They’ve been caught lying that their products are natural and non-GMO in the past, so I wouldn’t completely trust their seemingly good ingredient list. Their organic and packaging certifications also raise questions. Overall, the company needs to work on creating more tangible goals in their manufacturing, and being more transparent about how they plan to achieve these goals.
Overall the ingredients of Chobani oat milk are promising since it is vegan, non-GMO, and 98% water and organic oats. Compared to both cow’s milk and other milk alternatives, oat milk has a significantly smaller footprint when it comes to emissions, land use, and water use. According to a University of Oxford study, producing a cup of dairy milk every day for a year would require 2 entire tennis courts of land. Oat milk requires one-tenth of this amount. When compared to other milk alternatives, oat milk ranks second to almond milk in land use and emissions but uses an eighth of the water required for almond. The rest of the ingredients (mostly consisting of oil, salt, nutrients, and plant-based gelatin) are all naturally derived with the exception of dipotassium phosphate, a man-made chemical additive used to help the milk steam better. Although the ingredient has been classified as generally safe by both the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this kind of chemical additive may be indicative of a highly processed product. There have also been concerns that the overconsumption of this ingredient may cause a risk of kidney disease by increasing the level of phosphorus in the body. Despite these concerns, the product is still labeled as having “no artificial flavors or preservatives.” This claim seems fishy to me, especially considering that Chobani has been sued for having “all-natural ingredients” claims in the past. However, it may be because there's a very little amount of the preservative in the oat milk (it is the last ingredient listed). Packaging wise, milk cartons are lightweight which allow them to hold product efficiently and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They can also be recycled into things like office paper, tissue paper, and building materials.
Chobani farms all their non-GMO and organic oats in Saskatchewan, Canada, and manufactures their oat milk in New Berlin, NY. Their oats are certified organic by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, despite farming their oats in Canada (...interesting). To transport their oats between their farms and manufacturing sites, they use gasoline-powered trucks and are currently focusing on increasing the storage capacity of these trucks rather than transitioning to renewable fuel sources. The oat milk’s paper packaging is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s (SFI) Chain of Custody Certification, a third-party certificate that ensures at least 10% of the paper used for packaging comes from “certified forest content, certified sourcing, and post-consumer recycled content.” According to the SFI, all products must provide the percentage of paper and pulp material that is certified on all their packaging, but Chobani does not do this. According to Consumer Reports and Green America, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s certification is often less stringent than other forest certificates, since it allows for more tree farming and doesn’t require consultation with indigenous groups.
Chobani’s impact report is filled with many ambitious goals including running on 100% renewable energy, water neutral operations, contributing zero waste to landfills, running their vehicles on renewable fuels, and sustainably sourcing their ingredients. For each of these goals, they specify their more targeted goal for 2022 as well as what they have accomplished so far. However, the progress on these goals is often very vague. For instance, they are “ prioritizing our search for third parties to help us implement zero waste to landfill processes” and “improving our logistics efficiency by 20%” in order to run a fleet of renewable energy-powered vehicles. With those steps, progress looks unlikely. When it comes to their renewable energy and water usage goals there are slightly more tangible steps being taken. Chobani has reduced their energy use by 16.4% and water consumption by 18%, but frankly, this isn’t enough to achieve their goals anytime soon.
Chobani is run by their CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish businessman who has been particularly passionate about issues relating to refugees. Hamdi has donated over $2 million dollars to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and is known for hiring refugees in his farms in upstate New York and Idaho. Chobani is also partnering with the World Trade Organization to develop MilkMatters, the first fair trade certification specifically for dairy farms. The company, however, has been very prone to scandals relating to the way they label their products. In 2013, Whole Foods pulled their products from their stores due to Chobani falsely claiming their products were GMO-free. They’ve also been sued for claiming their dairy yogurt contained “all-natural ingredients” when the juices used in their yogurts were heavily processed. It should also be noted that although Chobani is extending their oat-based products, they are still primarily a dairy company. In 2015, the dairy industry contributed 1,700 million tons of CO2 (more than all airplanes and shipping combined!), and this number only increases as the industry expands each year. If Chobani doesn’t plan to shift to primarily plant-based products, it will be hard for them to become true environmental leaders in an industry that does this much damage.