At 7am, on Monday, I was woken by a man tinkling outside my front door. Well, if you are going to live in south east London, as my father would say. But the reason I leapt out of bed was the pint of fresh milk now sitting in a glass bottle on my step, foil top and all.
Granted, it’s only week two, but the novelty of having my semi-skimmed delivered is yet to curdle. Having spent my adult life buying milk in plastic cartons from the supermarket, I have returned to the dairy delivery habits of childhood – and it feels good, despite having being convinced, on the first morning, that the sound of clinking glass was an errant fox in the recycling.
Milk & More, the nation’s largest delivery service, report that business is booming: they’ve signed up 75,000 new households in the past year (including 10,000 last month, and 20,000 the month prior) and now boast 500,000 customers – 90 per cent of whom are getting their milk in glass bottles, which can then be returned and reused, typically 25 times. Oat milk, that essential millennial liquor, is offered too.
Of course, I remember milk being delivered as a child; the thrill of tracing my tongue around the lid, removing the cream, before trying to replace it before my parents came downstairs and noticed it had been tampered with. I fondly recall my mum taking the wire carrier outside, and the sound of the float trundling down our road.
Then it stopped. Where in 1975, 94 per cent of milk in the UK was delivered in glass, by 2016 it was just three per cent; vans were being taken of the roads, depots were closing and the traditional milk delivery was decreed extinct. Indeed when Müller (who own Milk & More) bought the UK’s biggest milk bottle plant in Hanworth, London from Dairy Crest four years ago, closure was on the cards.
But my generation have turned the white stuff’s fortunes around – milk deliveries tick every box of the Millennial Needs Hierarchy: sustainability, convenience and nostalgia. When I asked my peers on Twitter why they’d signed up, the overwhelming response was: “I feel smug for not using plastic”.
Many dairies credit “the Blue Planet II effect” for their change in fortunes – in particular, a distressing scene from the 2017 series, which showed a mother whale mourning for her calf, which had died from plastic poisoning.
“David Attenborough really shook things up. He started the ball rolling again,” says Paul Lough, depot manager for Parker Dairies, a family-owned business serving central and east London. He has been astonished at the turnaround. “The rise in new customers this past 18 months has been the largest growth I have seen in 32 years.” he says.
“Who’d have thought we would, at last, have something the supermarkets can’t offer: a local business giving an old-fashioned service, delivered on an electric vehicle”.
"What was once seen as a traditional service is now really popular with people from all age groups, including millennials," adds Chris Swallow, joint managing director at Creamline Dairies, which has been delivering to Manchester and Cheshire since 1945. "Many young professionals, just like busy families and the elderly now see the benefits of a doorstep delivery service, especially when these items are delivered using environmentally friendly electrical vehicles."
Considering that, in the 1950s, milk was still delivered by horse and cart, it’s fair to say the nation’s floats have undergone a transformation. In May 2018, Milk & More spent £6.5m on a fleet of 200 zero-emission battery-powered electric vans. They can carry 860 pints and have a top speed of 53mph – vital when you’ve committed to delivering by 7am. “We will be the largest operator of electric vehicles in the UK by the end of September,” CEO Andrew Kendall tells me.
The fly in the pint pot is that it does cost around a third more than the supermarket stuff. But millennials are increasingly happy to fork out to support local producers and reduce food miles.
Not to mention convenience. My generation orders so many takeaways that “Deliveroo” has become a verb. Why not Milkeroo, too? Plus, most also sell bread, cheese, farm eggs, bacon, all the milk alternatives a millennial could want; even heavy bags of compost. You can order and pay online up to 9pm the night before, and still have it delivered the next morning by your milkman – or woman. (Milk & More are currently recruiting female “milkies” and are trialling two day working weeks to encourage them into what has been a male-dominated industry.)
For city-dwellers like me, having a regular milky is part of the attraction – although I’m yet to meet my own, Alan. “Plus,” says fellow convert Susie Negus, “if I die, they will likely notice, which is reassuring.”
She’s got a point. “One of ours saved a lady’s life,” Lough recalls. “Her milk was delivered and was still out the following day, so he alerted the neighbours. When they went inside, she was slumped in a chair.”
And nostalgia plays its part. “We claimed it was for the recycling,” admits Kaite Welsh, 36, “but really it’s because it looked pretty and made me feel like I lived in a country village”.
I don’t care to admit how long I’ve spent googling “retro milk carriers”. It comes from the same place as all those stressed-out twenty and thirty-something who seek comfort in colouring books and Lego – security blankets from days gone by.
“It’s a joy to wake up to,” agrees 26-year-old Harriet Palmer. “I can almost convince myself it’s still the Nineties and life is simpler.”
Forget mindfulness, we’ve entered the era of milkfulness. See you on the doorstep, Alan.