Dean Foods bankruptcy and ethical consumerism

Dean Foods, the largest dairy company in the US, filed for bankruptcy this week. Sad news for employees, but perhaps a positive indicator for ethical consumerism. Is the myth of the ethical consumer becoming a reality? (The myth of the ethical consumer refers to the idea that, while many of us prioritize ethical choices in theory, sales data indicate that these choices are often not being made in reality.) Does the bankruptcy of Dean Foods, one of the largest intensive dairy corporations on the planet, imply that people are starting to get serious about making good choices?

Ethical rating for Dean Foods

Broadly speaking, plant-based milk is more ethical than animal-based, and then within the category of cow’s milk there are better and worse choices. I would rate Dean Foods as among the poorer choices: 1/5 Green Stars.

It seems that Dean Foods has made its own ethically-poor business choices over the last decade or so that didn’t help its case. The company entered the plant-based milk market with their Silk brand soy milk, but came under fire for lack of transparency/integrity on their switches from organic to conventional soy beans and from local farmers to Chinese suppliers who could undercut them on price (see this post on ethical soy for more on that). In 2013 Dean Foods seemed to give up on plant-based and organic products, and spun off their Silk and Horizon Organic brands as a new company. They had also sold off their tofu brand back in 2007 and seemed to double-down on intensive dairy.

In a previous post on Kauai, I told the story of how Dean Foods began shipping milk to Hawaii in the mid-80s, following a contamination scare with local milk, and by 2015 was price-squeezing the last dairy farmer on the Big Island. I’ve researched Dean Foods a few times when writing Green Stars reviews (for example, I rated Philz Coffee 2/5 Green Stars for reasons including their weak coffee standards and use of Dean Foods milk) but I won’t bog you down with all the details. If you’d like to read more you could start with the 2018 animal welfare report from Compassion in World Farming, where Dean Foods gets their second-worst rating.

(The beginning of) the end of an era?

Suffice it to say that their story is similar to that of many giant food corporations: pitting suppliers (farmers) against each other in price wars and compromising on sustainability and animal welfare to maximize profit. It’s the fact that this model seems to be failing because consumer preferences are changing that’s heartening to me.

I do feel that things are changing – the demise of Dean Foods coincides with explosive growth of a company at the other end of the spectrum. Back in May, Beyond Meat (BYND) had one of the biggest and most talked about IPOs of the decade. The 10-fold increase in the BYND share price over three months and the frequent updates on market penetration of plant-based proteins imply a lot of optimism.

Ethical review of a plant-based milk: Ripple        

I’ve covered plant-based milks before and found that although they differ in impact, the majority of them rate better than dairy. I personally prefer homemade milk, but I’ll take an example of a commercial product: Ripple milk, made from peas. I would rate Ripple Foods 4.5 Green Stars, based on the points below:

  • Ripple milk is plant-based (made primarily from yellow peas) thus avoiding animal welfare issues.
  • Yellow peas fix their own nitrogen, avoiding the need for fertilizer.
  • Ripple milk has a carbon footprint about one quarter that of dairy.
  • Ripple also has a smaller water footprint than dairy, and peas are grown in regions where rainwater is plentiful.
  • The Ripple bottle is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic (PET, #1) and is completely recyclable, including the label.
  • Ripple Foods is a certified B-Corporation, with a score of 102.
  • There are still a couple of improvements that could be made, such as a commitment to using organic sunflower oil (to avoid neonics).
Images of Dairy Pure milk from Dean Foods and plant-based milk from Ripple Foods. Underneath is a graphic showing the ethical rating for these products: 1/5 and 4.5/5 Green Stars, respectively.
Ethical ratings for Dairy Pure milk from Dean Foods (1/5 Green Stars) and Ripple pea-based milk (4.5/5 Green Stars)

Ethical consumerism and health

For the next few posts, I’m going to try a new theme on the relationship between ethical consumerism and health. Why should we care about the relationship between ethical consumerism and health, I hear you ask? Well, because some of our dietary trends are out of tune with both the planet and our health. And it’s easier to convince someone to change if there’s a personal as well as a planetary benefit.

I’m not going to cover the health issues associated with dairy here (maybe another day), but I’ll leave you with this video from Plant Based News comparing plant-based to dairy milk, which touches on some of the health issues.

6 thoughts on “Dean Foods bankruptcy and ethical consumerism

  1. Another great review. Thank you. Shared it to FB and Twitter, by the way, before heading out to get me some of that Ripple! 🙂


    1. Thank you Frances! Let me know if you like it. I find it to be pretty rich so I actually dilute it a little with water before use. That’s a good thing, really, as it makes it more economical 🙂


  2. I’m still hooked on cow lactations, but I experiment with nut milks periodically.

    Horizon is my usual mass-market cow milk, cause it’s cheap. Unfortunately, they only got 2 stars from Cornucopia. Looks like in general it’s been the big producers putting the small farms out of business, especially with the lax standards enforcement for organic, the same story for years in produce that Micheal Pollen related.

    I think ethical consumerism depends in part on consumers being able to count on the government to enforce meaningful standards. Otherwise, it is a myth; we end up being eco-suckers, just paying more for a label that makes us feel better.

    Goes well beyond food, for example, personal care products (soap, shampoo, etc). I have no hard data but suspect they are pretty much the same as regular mass-produced goods but with different packaging and fragrance, at twice the price.

    I do hope the Green Stars system catches on, but currently it requires the consumer (or at least the reviewer) to do a lot of research, and industry doesn’t make it easier, so even in this age of “government is the problem”, I’m hoping that consumer groups can apply pressure to politicians to enact & enforce regulations that can guide us in making ethical choices. And maybe start fining unethical businesses and taxing unsustainable production.

    When I was a kid, we didn’t even have nutritional labeling on foods! So things can improve.


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