Graphic by  Tara Steinmetz

Graphic by Tara Steinmetz

Does Our Generation Apply Too much meaning to trivial commodities?

We value products not for their utilitarian applications, but for the lifestyles they promise to us.

11 • 16• 2018

By Anna Tingley


I decided between three different types of milk when brewing my coffee this morning.

The three different pint-sized cartons, which embarrassingly take up a large portion of the middle shelf of my fridge, seem to mock me as I lean in and struggle to make the same fateful choice of dairy (or should I say, non-dairy) consumption day after day.

Oat milk is usually used exclusively for my coffee needs -- its alkaline creaminess disguises my cheap drip-coffee as a luxurious latte. But sometimes I’m craving a sweeter twang. This is where my hazelnut-flavored Alpro almond milk comes to the rescue. Sometimes the added sugar is worth the sacrifice in consistency that oat milk offers. But as I lean closer in, I’m reminded that Oatly professes that their product should be consumed within five days of opening the product and in fear of wasting the near $2 I optimistically spent on this non-dairy choice earlier in the week, I choose to ignore my unjustified sugar craving and go for the oats. But don’t think I forgot about that third carton. This last one takes up far less brain activity but is arguably the most important -- it’s actually milk! You know, the type that is born into the world via udders and gives vegans around the world nightmares. I’m an avid cereal consumer and the thick consistency of oat milk and commanding taste of almond milk just don’t work. Hence, a small carton of good ‘ole 2% market-brand milk takes up the final space allotted in my fridge for my milk needs.

I talk and think, and apparently write, about milk way too much. But I’m not the only one. When writing this story, I had numerous friends defend their milk preferences with pride. I didn’t even have to ask around for opinions on the matter because people inserted themselves into the milk narrative with no shame. There’s 108 thousand photos under the #oatmilk hashtag on Instagram. Research from Mintel reveals that non-dairy milk sales have grown by an impressive 61 percent since 2012. And for some reason, every millennial has an opinion on the matter but when I asked my mom about it, she had nothing to say.

Through my own shopping experiences, and through conversations with friends, I came to realize that people our age seem to apply a larger meaning to to not only milk, but a wide array of commodities, applying value to random products that are much larger than their utilitarian applications.

As silly as it seems, and as embarrassing it is for most people to openly admit, Oat Milk is more than a dairy alternative -- it’s a lifestyle. And an expensive one at that.

The idea of buying certain products and remaining loyal to specific brands is no new phenomenon. In response to a booming economy in the 1950s, aptly named the Decade of Prosperity, consumer spending rose dramatically. With more disposable incomes, people began buying products out of desire rather than necessity, prompting the beginning of the capitalistic landscape we’re all too familiar with today, one marked by in an inundation of advertisements and marketing and branding. Countless companies sell the same product but vie for consumers’ undivided attention, inevitably leading us all to be subject to countless choices everyday, sometimes even before we make it out of bed.

I’m willing to bet that there’s science to back up what I’m about to say but even without proper citations, it seems pragmatic to assume that with an array of choices laid out before us, it’s human nature to sub-consciously apply hierarchical ordering even to the most mundane of things. And as more products become available and readily accessible, one’s status symbol is no longer marked by what one has versus doesn’t have, but rather what kind/brand/make of said thing they have.

When Henry Ford and Dr. Ferdinand Porsche pioneered the movement towards more affordable and simple cars in the 1940s, and cars were more readily accessible to people across income brackets, society needed another way to distinguish the elite and by the 1980s, Japanese car companies such as Honda, Nissan, Mazda, and Toyota offered luxury expensive cars to those who could afford them.

But while big purchases such as cars, houses, and designer clothes have long been categorized as status symbols -- as ways to decipher one’s economic status or the life one lives before even talking to them -- it seems that this assignment of status has now trickled down to the most mundane of products, even milk.

Because having a preference at all about something so trivial is a sign of privilege. As we enter an era with more choices than ever in what we’re consuming, it’s only going to be those with disposable incomes that will actually have the freedom to choose and not let the system choose for them by way of pricey gatekeeping price-tags.

My roommate, an oat milk groupie, had this to say: “I think the health fanaticism and culture is making a lot of these more ‘natural’ or ‘better-for-you’ or ‘sustainable’ products become this way of proving that you’re up to date and informed on the latest health trends and that’s why you see the sort of fad mentality where everyone is almost obsessive about making sure they’re not ordering or consuming a product that was just proven to be actually inferior to other products in the latest New York Times article.”

And that sentiment definitely rings true in the many responses I received about this article. While everyone agreed it was a trend, no one claimed (or admitted) that their own love for oat milk was part of a temporary fad. Rather, they defended their milk alternatives with facts about its environmental advantages and health benefits, all seemingly well-informed on the latest statistics about their daily consumption.

“Our generation is the one that’s more likely to follow fads,” one friend of mine said. “I think half of half of the people choosing oat milk (dairy/meat alternatives) are aware of the impact it has on their health and the environment, and these people can be considered the trend-setters, and another portion of people choosing it is because they think it’s ‘hip.’ But for whatever reason you choose to follow a more sustainable lifestyle, it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, it’s all positive for health and the planet.”

For others, their oat milk preference is more simple: “Oat milk is legit heavenly, it tastes like the milk at the bottom of your cereal bowl and I’m obsessed,” my friend Gilly said.

So maybe people don’t choose oat milk because it’s an expensive trend. Maybe they really do make dietary changes to do their part in creating a cleaner world. Or maybe simply because they like the taste.

But no matter one’s preference, people seem to be hyper-aware of what they consume, and stand behind their daily beverage choices with proud conviction.

There will certainly only be more research to sift through about the milk we consume in just the next few months, and I have no doubt that a new milk “fad” will soon take over the “oat-milk era” we’re now living in (albeit one that will probably be even healthier and environmentally-friendly.)

But for now, I still have three half-full cartons of very different milks sitting in my fridge and I have choices to make!