• Ethical Edition

I'm Not Outraged at Oatly

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

When there's a lot of unhappy customers, why am I slightly more chill than the rest of social media?

Ok, let's take a step back, why are people all of a sudden boycotting Oatly?

Last week Oatly announced that they had investment from a large investment corporation called the Blackstone Group. The Blackstone Group are surrounded by a swirling mixture of fact and fiction about their investment portfolio and the impacts it has, and with a few unpalatable reports, conscious plant-milk consumers aren't happy.

What's the problem?

This time last year they invested in a company that was reported to have been clearing areas of the Amazonian Rainforest, Blackstone released a blog and press release contradicting this and stating that it was the Brazilian Government that had requested, and paid for, the new road to be built. It's hard to know with a different story on all sides, but Jair Bolsonaro has also been known to twist the deforestation data produced by his own government to maintain convenient and profitable relationships. So how are we to know?

Another big issue raised is the support for Donald Trump (and anti-AOC activity) by Blackstone's CEO Steve Schwarzman. I'm not sure there's much to say here as I'm as anti-Trump as you can get. It is unlikely that pro-Trump ideals will be reflected by Oatly but I suppose when the money trickles down, or up, there could be coins out of your purse being donated to the Trump campaign, so I get that.

However, this uproar about Blackstone still seems weirdly rather large in comparison to the remarks made last year, and again recently, when China Resources, a state-owned organisation, purchased a 30% stake in Oatly. Comparatively, Blackstone's investment is just 10% max as the $200m being reported also includes cash from various celebrities. The stake sold to China Resources was to achieve two goals: open up more factories to meet demand, and to enter the Chinese market where the consumption of cow milk products is on an extremely unsustainable rise. At the time of the announcement there were a lot of comments around Oatly's hypocrisy - how could they have Chinese investors and still be committed to sustainability when China is such a big CO2 polluter? Well, how does change happen people?! As Blackstone's corporate responsibility information on their website says, they are "uniquely positioned to make a positive impact through investments and to strengthen the communities in which we live and work." Words on a website do not do enough, organisations should be walking the talk, and although not pioneers, they are doing some walking.

It's important for us to understand that although Oatly is one of the giants in the plant-milk world, companies need money to grow, and sometimes they need more of a push than their cash flow allows for, hence the need for investment. In July the CEO Toni Peterson said "We chose to partner with Blackstone Group because of their tremendous resources and unique reach. Our new partners' commitment to supporting us and furthering our mission is a clear indication of where the world is heading, which is in a new, more sustainable direction." [Credit: BBC News]

What are the wins?

Agreed, Blackstone is a controversial choice from a pool of investors, but if they can provide the money Oatly needs to grow and expand and continue to increase the percentage of plant milk vs. cow milk in a world that drastically needs to reduce livestock carbon emissions then we are winning in two races with this decision: the race to reduce carbon emissions from one of the most polluting industries, and to get big investors acting more ethically. For all the bad Blackstone has done, they've also put millions into solar and hydro-electric power and their charitable giving. This in no way excuses unethical investments, but it shows there is room for a manoeuvre toward more sustainable options, which likely can be continued with pressure from consumer expectations.

How is an ethical/sustainable future forged?

Can you imagine if the biggest investment companies in the world started switching to investing in ethical companies? Money makes the world go round and with capital provision and investment, ethical companies can really be a part of the future. Maybe one day we would move away completely from oil and coal, and have millions ploughed into renewable energy? Joy!

It is true that Blackstone have unlikely followed their investment into Oatly due to their interest in environmentally-friendly opportunities. They have certainly seen the potential for Oatly to grow with key audiences being millennials and Gen-Z whose purchasing power is exceptionally important at this time. It's entirely possible that the profits Blackstone will make from this piece of Oatly will be invested into some of their more typical political and less sustainable activities, but profits made will also enable Oatly to expand and grow and influence the future of more sustainable products.

To get sustainable products into the mainstream takes huge production and marketing budgets, the likes of which many "sustainable" companies don't have. This requires investment and whilst Green Funds are an option, there's often not as much cash available; therefore brands are left to choose from investors who may have an interest in environmentally/socially conscious brands, but also may have an interest in how much profit oil makes them.

I also want to highlight that Oatly have been very transparent with these investments, and it's very possible that we are also buying sustainable/ethical products whose investors aren't always public or disclosed. It's possible, if you haven't specifically checked in on it lately, that your own pension is funding activities you don't agree with; so your purchasing power and where you put your money, both that which you are spending and saving, isn't just limited to which brand of milk you buy. In my opinion, this is all a small piece in a big puzzle of systemic issues. Consumerism has power, but big business is very much in charge and so without having bigger ethical/sustainable brands to choose from, we don't end up making much progress towards greater conscious consumerism. It's a vicious circle until someone breaks it.

Concluding remarks

I, like many of you, am unsure of the whole "making friends with the enemy" situation we are in here. I certainly don't want the my money going from carbon saving oat milk to widespread deforestation, but I really feel like it is bigger than our cartons of pulverised oats.

Purchasing power is real, and for everyone turning against Oatly, other plant-milk companies will benefit positively. For everyone sticking with Oatly, their work in sustainable operations, diversion from cattle milk and promoting environmental awareness will continue. Me? I'm not here to cause arguments, but I'm also not going to sit on the fence to please everyone. I'll probably still buy Oatly if it's the best value or taste, but I'll also probably carry on buying other plant milks too until I find the perfect milky mix of ethics and flavour. I'll also still carry on making my own milk at home.

I'm hesitantly thinking I'd like to see how this one plays out. Will it lead to change? Will Oatly and all their amazing work so far be ruined forever? Will Oatly cause Blackstone to lose money, returning them to invest in safer, unsustainable options, taking a step backwards? I don't know.

If you can't decide what to do either, why not have a go at making oat milk yourself at home? Here's a short DIY video for making a super easy, zero waste oat milk in your kitchen.

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