I have been vegetarian for most of my life and try to live a mostly vegan lifestyle today. While I certainly have ethical motivations in regards to animal life, I decided to go vegan in part to reduce my environmental impact. The thinking was that, by adopting a vegan diet, I would further reduce my consumption from the livestock industry which contributes to 18% of greenhouse gasses. However, since last summer, I have been torn, unable to trust even my vegan consumption habits.
It’s unclear to what extent global climate change is responsible for the current drought in California, but here is what we do know: the period between 2011 and 2014 has been the driest in California history since record-keeping, and the governor has mandated that water agencies reduce their water consumption by 25% since the summer of 2015.
The California drought has given rise to a unique set of problems around the growing of almonds, especially for the production of almond milk – a dairy substitute that boasts environmental benefits – including lower water usage – over traditional dairy products like milk and other vegetables like tomatoes. However, the problem remains that, unlike other products that are sourced across diverse geographies, nearly 80% of almonds are sourced from California where they absorb 10% of the state’s water supply.
WhiteWave’s current dilemma
One company facing the problems associated with using California’s water to produce almond milk is WhiteWave Foods. Known for their market-leading Silk brand, WhiteWave commands 13% of the dairy and dairy alternatives beverage market. With increasing pressure on Californians to save water and increasing media coverage on the issue, WhiteWave’s brand is at stake, and they are starting to make operational changes including improving geographic diversity. In a May 2015 earnings call, President of Americas Fresh Foods at WhiteWave claimed the company is looking into “geographic diversity of our land with a focus on well water, groundwater access, so [it has] no concerns in the short term.” Next, WhiteWave invests in Water Restoration Certificates (“WRCs”) to balance its water consumption from the Silk brand. While it has not explicitly connected its philanthropy to the drought, WhiteWave has also donated 2% of its pre-tax profits to nonprofit organizations focused on sustainability in addition to hunger relief.
While it is doing more than most companies, WhiteWave understands that demand for almonds continues to increase globally and that it has an obligation to ensure that its sourcing of California almonds must be responsible. If it doesn’t move to action and the drought gets worse, WhiteWave knows that it places not only its brand on the line but also leaves the door open to further regulation that could prohibitively increase the cost of production for its almond-based dairy alternative products.
Next steps for WhiteWave
Given its brand and production cost risks, WhiteWave must consider the following additional steps:
- Develop strong supply chain relationships outside of California – In the short-term, WhiteWave must consider sourcing more of its almonds from nearby regions in the US and Spain. By doing so, it can reduce its short-term consumption of California almonds in its production while keeping transportation costs lower than if it sourced almonds from countries that are further away. While this may be costly, WhiteWave will clearly demonstrate a responsible approach to neutralizing its contribution to the drought.
- Invest in WRC projects focused on drought solutions – WhiteWave should use the WRCs it buys to invest in projects that seek to increase groundwater production rather than invest in a general portfolio of WRCs that benefit global projects. By aligning the uses of its water with the contributions of its WRCs, WhiteWave can ensure that it employs a locally-balanced production system. Doing this further reduces the likelihood of regulation against the company and similar producers since California directly benefits from investments in WRCs.
- Fund research to identify friendly growing climates for almonds – In the long run, WhiteWave will inevitably run into sustainability issues as long as California is responsible for 80% of the world’s almond production. As such, the company should invest in research to identify new growing climates for almonds. Doing so will communicate to customers that the company is invested in ensuring a sustainable source of dairy alternative products for decades to come.
By considering the above suggestions, WhiteWave can keep consumers like myself who want to ensure their consumption habits do not contribute to negative environmental impacts.
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 Vegan Outreach, http://www.veganoutreach.org/whyvegan/environment.html
 “The California drought: What would you ask Gov. Jerry Brown?”. USC News. 8 June 2015. Retrieved10 June 2015. https://news.usc.edu/82464/the-california-drought-what-would-you-ask-gov-jerry-brown/
 “Almond Milk Is Not the Problem”, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2014/07/almond_milk_bad_for_environment_tom_philpott_and_mother_jones_are_wrong.html
 “The Thirsty West: 10 Percent of California’s Water Goes to Almond Farming” http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html