Person holding a Starbucks coffee cup Starbucks employees said the non-dairy surcharge will soon be no more. - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Starbucks US Reps Reveal Non-Dairy Surcharge Is On Its Way Out

Critics of the so-called "vegan upcharge" say the additional cost has health, environmental, and ethical implications


3 Minutes Read

Audio files sent to Plant Based News (PBN) suggest that Starbucks US customer service representatives were informed of a change in its plant-based milk policy, which was set to take effect as early as May 4.

In calls to the company’s toll-free number, employees said Starbucks would start charging the same for drinks made with plant-based milks. Reps claimed various timelines including “in two weeks” and “an approximate date of May 4.”

Recordings of the calls were submitted to PBN anonymously. To protect the identities of the employees, PBN is not releasing the audio files.

Callers were told to watch for an announcement about the switch on Starbucks’ social media channels.

However, at the time of writing, no such change has been publicized.

Recordings of other reps confirmed the change was being discussed or “on the table,” due, at least in part, to a number of complaints about the added charge. 

“They got quite a bit of pushback for it,” one representative told a caller, saying she was aware the company planned to drop the non-dairy surcharge, but she saw “nothing on paper” about an official date. 

The pressure is on

Starbucks has been under a growing amount of pressure to drop the additional cost, with actor James Cromwell and former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney the latest to call for change.

In December, anti-dairy nonprofit Switch4Good and corporate hoaxers The Yes Men pulled off an elaborate prank claiming Starbucks was dropping the non-dairy upcharge based on the prevalence of lactose intolerance in people of color. The headline-grabbing shenanigan included a realistic-looking but fake website and video. 

Weeks later, Starbucks dropped the plant-based upcharge in the UK, followed by France, Chile, and the Netherlands. It’s not clear whether Switch4Good’s stunt played a role in the decision, but the charity has continued pushing for US locations to follow suit.

Switch4Good published an open letter in the Seattle Times, cosigned by nearly two dozen organizations. It also conducted a hyper-targeted digital media campaign aimed at Starbucks executives, and engaged members of the company’s board of directors by email. 

An opportunity

“Ironically, Starbucks is known for creating smart, planet-friendly policies around so many of its initiatives, like giving 10 cents back to customers who bring in their own reusable cup,” said Switch4Good executive director Dotsie Bausch. “This is another opportunity for the company to show leadership.” 

It has been argued that because plant-based milk production costs more than cow’s milk – particularly in the US where dairy production is heavily subsidized by the government – food businesses (like Starbucks) must pass those costs onto the consumer.

But Bausch notes that Starbucks gives away millions of gallons of free dairy cream every year in its approximately 9,000 US stores.

“If they wanted to save money, they could stop giving away free cow’s milk. As things stand now, people who can’t digest dairy, or don’t for ethical or environmental reasons, are subsidizing lactose lovers.” 

But Starbucks’ recent decision to remove the upcharge from hundreds of its international locations is a good sign, Bausch says.

“If this is what their customer service reps are telling people, it’s clear that public pressure is having an effect,” she added. “So please, please, keep those calls and emails coming, and let Starbucks know that it’s wrong to charge extra for healthier and more sustainable options.”

“It’s wrong for health, for dietary equity, and for the environment.” 

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