The Oatly story is not new. Questions around Oatly’s ethics started rising in summer of 2020 but, honestly, I forgot that people outside of the sustainable and ethical internet bubble may not be as tuned in to the conversations that have been going on over the past six months. After taking the time to explain some of the controversy surrounding Oatly to some friends, I realised it may be helpful to write something here too.
So, if you have friends who aren’t as clued into the Oatly story (or if you yourself are just catching up), here’s a rundown on how ethical and sustainable Oatly actually is.
What is Oatly?
Oatly is a Swedish brand that creates dairy alternatives made with oats. Their range includes alternatives for items like yoghurt, ice cream and custard, but their most famous product is oat milk.
Oat milk has become an increasingly popular product in recent years. According to Business Insider in 2020, oat milk sales were up by 289% year-over-year from March to June. Some of these sales were attributed to increased grocery shopping during the pandemic, but dairy sales for the same time period saw year-over-year growth of just 25%.
Plus, pre-pandemic, dairy milk consumption was declining and non-dairy alternatives were growing. Among these oat milk is one of the most popular, both because it is a good dairy alternative for baristas and because it is one of the most environmentally friendly options. It produces minimal greenhouse gases and requires little water use (around 1/8 of the water almond milk requires), while also being suitable for those who are lactose intolerant and have nut allergies.
Oatly also has a long history of inciting sustainability conversations within the food industry, positioning itself as a challenger brand who has pushed back against convention and worked to create change. In 2019, for example, they added a carbon footprint label to their products in Europe. This promoted transparency, encouraged consumers to think about the impact of their food consumption, and challenged the food industry to also ‘show their numbers’.
So, what’s the problem?
In 2020 Oatly accepted a $200 million investment from a group of investors after a valuation of $2 billion, with Oatly stating that the cash would be used to fund expansion, including new production plants, and to create jobs in Europe, the US and Asia. The investment was led by private equity firm Blackstone, who have a controversial reputation.
Since the news came out, many have decided to boycott Oatly, believing money from buying Oatly would ultimately contribute to larger environmental disaster down the line. Here’s why.
The issues with Blackstone
Firstly, Blackstone is part-owned by Stephen Schwarzman, who is also CEO and worth $23 billion in 2021. Schwartzman has close ties with Donald Trump and the Republican party. In August 2020, Bloomberg reported that Schwartzman had donated $3.7 million dollars towards Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
While we now know that Trump’s re-election campaign didn’t succeed, The Intercept also reported that in 2016, Schwartzman donated $2.5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s Super PAC, while also putting Jim Breyer, a billionaire who is also McConnell’s brother-in-law, on the board of Blackstone. In 2018, Schwartzman then donated $8 million to McConnell’s Super PAC, and in 2020 he donated a further $10 million. Both Trump and his campaign were egregious, this is clear, but ties to McConnell can’t be downplayed either. McConnell has notoriously been one of the largest recipients of fossil fuel donations in American government and has been vocally against the Green New Deal, killing the deal when he was majority Senate leader in 2019.
Beyond the United States, Blackstone has also come under fire because they own a stake in Hidrovias do Brasil. Pátria Investimentos, another Blackstone company, also owns more than 50% of Hidrovias.
Hidrovias operates a shipping terminal at Miritituba, in the Brazilian state of Pará. In 2019 The Intercept reported that the terminal has facilitated widespread deforestation of local areas, and is a driving force behind Amazon destruction. This is predominantly due to the development of a highway which facilitates farming and export of grain and soybeans. These developments spur more roads that make previously difficult-to-reach areas of the Amazon newly accessible for mining, logging, and further deforestation, ultimately violating Indigenous land rights and destroying hugely important ecosystems.
Blackstone & the housing crisis
In addition to climate destruction, Blackstone has also been accused of contributing to the global housing crisis, with the UN housing officer accusing them of exploiting tenants and ‘wreaking havoc’ in communities. Their business practises include massively inflating rent, imposing huge fees for repairs, undertaking aggressive evictions, shrinking the pool of affordable housing in some areas, and pushing low and middle-income tenants from their homes across the globe.
Ultimately, this all sums up the nature of what Blackstone is. Blackstone exists to extract wealth. They risk the money of others to extract profits from the corporations they invest in, and they have built power through praying on and exploiting vulnerable people.
That’s how they got their start in the real estate business: it was after the Global Financial Crisis. Families were economically distraught, facing bankruptcy and extreme poverty. Blackstone swooped, purchased the cheap debt of all those foreclosed homes, and turned those homes into rental accommodation and started charging exorbitant rent. Renting homes back to former homeowners. So they used the ruin of people—the economic ruin of people—for their own fortunes.”
What does this mean for Oatly?
Many have accused Oatly of selling its soul for taking money from Blackstone, especially as reports suggest it was Oatly who approached Blackstone.
Blackstone, with such a small stake, is a passive investor. Unlike shareholders in a publicly-traded company, they have no control over how Oatly runs. This suggests that the sustainable operations of Oatly themselves won’t change. Oatly also argued that they wanted to convince Blackstone that sustainable companies, such as themselves, are profitable, leading other private equity firms to ‘steer their collective worth of 4 trillion US dollars into green investments’.
However, this isn’t a new idea. Many companies have argued that taking investments from unethical sources will make sustainability mainstream, and it hasn’t yet transformed private equity. I would argue that any major sustainable shifts we’ve seen in the market have come from consumer pressure and collective activism.
Also, while Oatly may intend to create change from the inside, this seems naive. $200 million is one of Blackstone’s smallest investments, however after the news was released, the firm immediately changed its Instagram bio to “Learn how we’re backing sustainable, plant-based alternatives to dairy with our investment in @oatly.” It’s hard not to see that as anything but greenwashing. Blackstone seems to get a lot from the deal, while Oatly achieves very little.
Oatly believes that yes, it could have gone for green funds, but now it’s taking money that could have gone elsewhere. Oatly thinks it’s “making dark money light in some way”, it’s “reshaping Blackstone”
…does he get closer to that goal [of furthering the plant-based revolution and saving the planet, and also paving the way for more sustainable and ethical investment and moving the money] by taking this money from this big political power, Blackstone? I would say no. Because Blackstone doesn’t want to share their power with Oatly […] Blackstone just wants to take the profits out of Oatly and be profitable itself.”
…Oatly’s 10% owned by Blackstone, with a projected profit of $400 million in 2021, will gain Blackstone an estimated $40 million.”
So here we have it: 10% may not be enough for Oatly to have a say in changing Blackstone from inside out. And at the same time, 10% is a lot to go into damaging, unethical projects.
Additionally, while Oatly may seem like a small company who’s trying to change the giant of Blackstone, let’s remember it’s not that small. Oatly is, after all, still a corporation estimated at $2 billion. It does have power and influence and, considering how often we hold individuals accountable, that energy should absolutely be directed at corporations like Oatly.
Should you still buy Oatly?
Well, it’s still a personal decision.
Specialist shops that sell multiple non-dairy options are not always accessible, and many who have switched to plant milks may have only been able to do so thanks to increased availability (and lower prices) in supermarkets, with Oatly being one of the most widely available.
However, I did take a look at Ethical Consumer’s score table on plant milks.
Many other options have issues too, so it’s not necessarily a simple switch. Alpro, Provamel and Soya Soleil brands are owned by Groupe Danone; Danone have been accused of unethical marketing of baby milk formula in China, Indonesia, Turkey and India, which Baby Milk Actions says is putting babies in danger.
At the same time, many non-dairy milk brands, including Sojade, Sojasun, Soya Soleil, Alpro, Provamel, Dream, Isola Bio and Granovita, are owned by companies that sell meat and dairy, which many vegans may want to avoid giving their money to.
According to Ethical Consumer, the best alternative options to go for (if accessible to you) include:
- Lucy Bee for coconut milk – all Fairtrade and organic.
- Plamil for soya milk – all organic.
- Good Hemp for hemp milk.
- The Bridge for nearly all kinds, and all of it organic: almond, oat, soya, coconut, rice, buckwheat, spelt, Brazil nut, chickpea and quinoa.
- Rebel Kitchen
- Rude Health
Missing from the list is also Minor Figures, a brand I personally enjoy and is often chosen by baristas who don’t stock Oatly.
The larger issue
Ultimately, something that has been missing from some of these discussions (though not all!), is why does Oatly need to grow any bigger? Yes, Oatly is operating within a capitalist model like the rest of us and, yes, perhaps they’re aiming to grow to put up a fight against big dairy, which is a very destructive industry.
But we need to ask, why do we always view growth as essential or good?
Honestly, I think we need to move away from the mindset that success always has to equal growth. While oat milk has a smaller environmental footprint than dairy, is the most sustainable option to then have one oat milk company with a global monopoly? Is it not more beneficial to have multiple, smaller-scale oat milk businesses creating for their local areas? Will this not create more jobs (as there’s less automation in small operations vs large scale factories), more community, and much smaller carbon footprints due to reduced shipping?
Consider Untitled Oats: an Edinburgh based oat milk brand who use Scottish ingredients, package in glass bottles you can return and reuse, and deliver around Edinburgh via bicycle to local shops. Of course, not everyone has access to these shops or products right now, but isn’t it better to pursue a world where these kind of operations are the accessible norm in every community rather than assume the only path to sustainability is for Oatly to become a global giant?
I’m not here to say whether you should boycott Oatly or not. There are levels of privilege required to boycott, and it can place too much emphasis on consumer choice over collective pressure and activism to stop corporations from mass destruction and pollution.
One thing I would urge everyone to do, however, is to learn about degrowth. We need a world filled with medium and small scale operations, none of us should support one company dominating an entire market and believing that is the best example of what sustainability can be. We can dream bigger than that.