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Starbucks Protests Spark a Conversation Around “Vegan Upcharges” and Accommodating Dietary Preferences

Jul 12, 2022
Starbucks coffee cup

Everybody loves Starbucks, right?

Well, the multinational coffee corporation has been facing recent criticism for their dairy-free alternatives surcharge, which made headlines after a series of protests throughout the United States. These public displays of disapproval went as far as people gluing their hands to Starbucks checkout counters, in an attempt to draw attention to the big corporation’s discrepancies between their proclaimed commitment to sustainability and their actions as it relates to pricing.

One of the activists involved in the protests was Succession actor James Cromwell, who declared at the event, “Starbucks claims that it wants to be more sustainable, but it discourages customers from choosing sustainable products. The company claims to be committed to inclusion and diversity, but it still discriminates against those who can’t have dairy.”

The global coffee chain is one of many businesses who charge extra for dairy-free and gluten-free alternatives to common products, and the recent news around their “vegan upcharges” has brought forth a larger conversation around price discrimination and sustainability. Many people are responding negatively to these surcharges over the shared beliefs that they are unfair and yet another example of a company prioritizing profits over equitable business initiatives.

So, what do people really think about these businesses’ decisions to charge more for dairy-free substitutes and gluten-free alternatives? How likely are people to order these kinds of alternatives anyways? GroupSolver asked over 215 respondents to dig deep into the latest trends in dietary preferences as it translates into consumer behavior.

Today, there are more alternatives than ever for various dietary preferences.

The rise in dairy-free alternatives, gluten-free substitutes, and meat replacements reflects the increases in demand for these products. Around 33% of respondents indicated having a dietary restriction or preference which directly influences their reliance on these product substitutes. A significant portion of the population adjusts their purchase decisions based on their dietary preferences.

Of the 33% of respondents with a dietary restriction, 39% were gluten-free and 28% were dairy-free, accounting for the most common options selected in our study. 15% of respondents were vegetarian, 15% were plant-based, and 15% were Kosher, rounding out the tie for the third most common dietary preferences.

Dietary preferences bar chart

Regardless of dietary restrictions, many people still opt for dairy-free and gluten-free alternatives

67% of respondents didn’t have a specific dietary restriction, however, many people still indicated that they opt for products catered towards these diets. When asked about their likelihood to consume dairy-free or gluten-free items, nearly half of respondents indicated they were “likely” or “very likely” to opt for these alternatives.

When it came to consuming meat alternatives such as tofu and tempeh though, people seem to be a bit more hesitant. 15% of people said they were “very likely” to consume these meat alternatives, while 27% of people said they were “very unlikely” to consume, as reflected in the chart below.

Bar chart comparing likelihood to consume dairy-free, gluten-free, and meat substitutes

Almost 50% of respondents indicated that they were “likely” or “very likely” to order drinks with dairy-free alternatives as opposed to milk

Dairy alternatives were particularly popular among respondents. When ordering out, many people order milk-based drinks with dairy free alternatives such as almond milk or oatmilk. 18% of respondents indicated being “very likely” to do this, while 26% were “likely” to do so. 20% remained neutral on the decision.

Graph showing the likelihood of someone to order a latte or similar drink typically involving a milk base with a milk substituteOf the people who selected having a dietary preference or restriction, the top reasons for doing so varied. 62% said it was better for their health, 41% said the decision was because of allergies and/or intolerances, and 24% said it was better for the environment.

It appears that consumers not only value a variety of options that align with their dietary preferences, but they are also generally disappointed with businesses’ decisions to charge more for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free alternatives.

Eating healthy should not cost more money” (78% support) 

In fact, most respondents disagreed with the upcharges. 23% “strongly agreed” and 38% “agreed” that businesses should not charge more for dairy-free alternatives, accounting for over half of all responses. Similarly, 26% of respondents “strongly agreed” and 33% “agreed” that businesses should not charge more for gluten-free alternatives. Only 14% collectively expressed some level of disagreement towards both types of surcharges.

Level of agreement with statements saying businesses should NOT charge more for dairy-free and gluten-free alternativesRespondents elaborated on these thoughts, sharing that “eating healthy should not cost more money” (78% support), which garnered the highest level of support.

What are your thoughts on Starbucks’ decision to charge more for dairy-free alternatives?

New Idea Cloud with Themes - What are your thoughts on businesses charging more for dairy-free and gluten-free alternatives?


However, even though many people disagree with businesses’ decisions to charge more for these substitutes, they also perceive these items to cost more. When presented with the statement “vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free substitutes are more expensive for businesses to provide,” 33% of people agreed with the statement, while another 33% were “neutral,” making up the majority of total responses.

This complements another remark that, “Generally vegan items are more expensive anyway than regular items,” which garnered 76% support.

So, while some people may be aware of the extra costs potentially associated with providing these substitutes to consumers, many are still expecting businesses to carry the burden of these charges as opposed to passing them along to consumers.

As for Starbucks, the company continues to charge almost an extra $1 to accommodate requests for milk substitutes across all US locations. Gluten-free items at Starbucks locations also remain even more expensive, with some gluten-free foods costing up to twice as much. In response to the activism, Starbucks pledged to no longer charge more for their dairy alternatives across their 1,020 stores in the UK, but that is yet to happen in the US.

Now that you know the facts, what do you think about these charges? Share this post with your thoughts, and don’t forget to subscribe to GroupSolver® Digest Weekly Newsletter so you’ll never be out of the loop on the latest market trends in real time.

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