Typically, when I open my fridge, I can find 5 large tubs of Chobani yogurt. My family all prefers a different flavor, but we can all agree that we like the taste of the popular Greek yogurt brand. As I started my search to determine how sustainable Chobani is, I was happy to see what I wanted to, but as I searched more what I found was greenwashing. While Chobani is making strides towards sustainability, there is progress to be made.
In Chobani’s non-fat plan Greek yogurt there is one ingredient: cultured nonfat milk. There is no rSBT (an artificial growth hormone used in increase milk production), artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners or preservatives. The difference between regular yogurt and Chobani Greek yogurt is the straining process. To get the thick consistently of Greek yogurt a lot more milk is used. For every one cup of yogurt, 3 cups of acidic whey are produced as byproducts. The whey produced contains water, lactose and minerals. Chobani recycles 100% of the whey they produce by giving it to local farms and businesses to be used as animal feed or fertilizer because it contains nitrogen and phosphorus. While this sounds great, the truth is that whey is toxic and cannot be dumped into the environment. They may be recycling the whey produced, but at a fee to farmers that want to buy it as fertilizers. While its a great fertilizer too much of it causes excess run off into nearby water. Chobani makes 2.4 million cases of Greek yogurt a week which means even more acidic whey. The unfortunate part about this is their nonfat plain yogurt is the most basic and sustainable product. Every other one contains flavoring which adds other unsustainable practices.
Chobani yogurt is packaged in plastic containers made of polypropylene. Compared to the alternatives, polypropylene is relatively environmentally friendly and can be recycled in most places, but I have to question how much is actually recycled. Since 2015 Chobani has reduced packaging weight by 12.3%. Their goals state that they want to convert 50% of product packaging to be fully recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or made with recycled content by 2022. If they are trying to reach 50% by 2022 then really how sustainable is what they use now.
The milk used to make Chobani’s Greek yogurt is certified fair trade and comes from the Dairy Farmers of America. Fair trade means that farmers wages are higher than others, but this policy has no effect on other workers hired by Chobani. While this may be true it is hard to know which farms the milk comes from since there is a middleman that connects the farm to the company and there are thousands of dairy farms that can be supplies. Chobani has committed themselves to using milk locally sourced. It is not uncommon for dairy workers to work more than 80 hours a week and face unsafe living and working conditions. In addition, the industry has a lot of immigrant workers that live in company housing and may be paid under minimum wage since they are not documented. Chobani may pay their employees well and take care of them, but the workers that make their product possible are not. I looked at the most basic Chobani product, but there are many products that use fruit and palm oil that is imported from other countries and have many implications that make them unsustainable. The process to make Greek yogurt is somewhat tedious as temperature control is important. Initially the milk must be kept below 45 degrees Fahrenheit and is then heated to 131 degrees. First the cream must be separated from the skim milk, which is then heated more to allow the whey to be separated. For one cup of yogurt, three pounds of milk is used. The yogurt is then cooled to prevent the yogurt from going sour. The cooling and heating processes are extensive and require a lot energy. I was excited to see they had a document on their website titled about the CA transparency in supply chains act and that they were in compliance. At first glance I was expecting transparency and to learn about their supply chain process. Instead, what I found were some red flags about their supply chain. Chobani “generally” verifies its supply chains. They “typically” review their business conduct and their supplies “are the best to our knowledge” compliant with legal requirements. These vague terms suggest that they have little control or idea what is involved in making the ingredients and packaging they get from other countries and even in the US.
The company was created in 2005 by Hamdi Ulukaya in upstate New York. By 2011 Chobani was able to expand to make the world’s largest yogurt factory in the world located in Idaho. The company has put on a sustainable front and the large factory has had a positive impact on the town in Idaho, it has created jobs and increased diary production in the area. The building has a large community center for town meetings and other town events.
As far as their sustainability report, it is detailed and lays out their sustainability goals for the future. Chobani has 9 sustainability goals that they call their “North Star goals” as they are supposed to guide them towards sustainability. Each goal is measurable and looked at every 3 years. I found that in the 2019 report the goals were based off the levels of 2016 however I was unable to track down the 2016 report which makes me question how much progress has actually been made. It is also unclear if the progress they have made is impressive, because the company is so big and has the largest yogurt factory in the world. While they may be trying to make efforts towards sustainability, their main ingredient is milk, which has a ways to go to be sustainable.