I’m not boycotting Oatly (yet)
10% of Oatly is now owned by Blackstone, and its customers aren’t happy. But I’m not boycotting Oatly — here’s why.
Oatly has been killing it over the past couple of years. There’s no denying that. What was born as a small Swedish company is now a globally recognisable brand on our supermarket shelves.
They’ve brought oat milk to the masses. They survived being sued by the milk industry in Sweden for their use of the word ‘milk’. And loyal customers worldwide now recognise their distinct brand voice, standing out as the anarchist ‘oat punks’ of the milk world.
Recently, though, their customer base has turned on them.
In July, Oatly signed a $200m investment deal with Blackstone, selling 10% of the company to one of the largest private equity firms in the world. Blackstone are headed up by Stephen Schwartzman, right-hand man to our favourite US president (praying you recognise the sarcasm here) Donald Trump and responsible for $3m of funding to support Trump’s re-election. On top of that, Blackstone have also previously been linked to investments in Brazilian infrastructure companies which are causing widespread deforestation and habitat destruction in the Amazon rainforest.
Oatly has seen a huge amount of growth as a company in the last few years, and they wanted to continue growing, expanding their production to the US and China and ultimately producing more oat products. This is what the investment will support.
Their argument for accepting Blackstone as an investor is that by accepting their investment they are showing Blackstone that they can make profit by green investments which support ethical and sustainable companies. They are diverting that $200m from being invested in other companies where it could do more damage to the planet, such as those Brazilian firms.
“We thought that if we could convince them that it’s as profitable to invest in a sustainability company like Oatly, then all the other private equity firms of the world would look, listen and start to steer their collective worth of 4 trillion US dollars into green investments.”
Why are Oatly’s fans so angry?
Since the news about Blackstone reached the media, Oatly has been facing a backlash. Criticisms like ‘you’re selling out to the highest bidder’ and ‘you’re supporting trump’ are all over social media.
And these criticisms are completely valid.
Oatly has grown into a large, profitable, and well-known brand. The assumption is that they weren’t short of choices in investment. So why couldn’t they have chosen funding which didn’t come from a company also supporting deforestation and climate change denial?
Selling 10% of the company to Blackstone seems entirely hypocritical. This is a company that has always promised to do good, aiming to bring ‘change and transparency to existing food systems’ and offer an alternative to dairy milk which is responsible for a high amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In their Sustainability Report they emphasise again and again that they will always be a ‘good company’ and that this will always come above profit.
From the outside, it does seem like their choice to accept $200m of investment to continue their growth and, therefore, inevitably increase their profit margin, comes at the price of this promise.
“We promise to be a good company, which means that our drive to help people upgrade their lives always comes before the reckless pursuit of profit.”
Alternatives to Oatly
But if we boycott Oatly, what are our other options? We know that oat milk is the best choice to reduce the carbon emissions from your diet, so stick to oat-y options we must.
In the UK, alternative oat milk brands include:
Alpro and Provamel
I’m grouping these two together because they’re both 100% owned by corporate giant Danone. Shocking, I know. Whereas Alpro is well-recognised as a large profit-focused brand, Provamel gives off the impression of being a smaller, sustainability-focused brand with their organic ingredients, expensive price tag, and is found mostly in local delis and health food stores.
Oatly may have sold out to Blackstone, but there’s no way you should opt for Alpro or Provamel over them. Browsing Danone’s website you’ll find lots of promises about their commitment to sustainability. But you won’t find their track record as one of the world’s top 10 plastic polluters, false advertising lawsuits from both their probiotic yoghurts and breast milk replacements, animal testing horrors (on dogs, hamsters, and pigs), sourcing palm oil from the company responsible for the highest level of deforestation in the world, promoting gambling through their ownership of the Evian Casino in France — and it goes on. When you’re raking in a cool £18,790,000,000 every year, can you really be expected to be a company with morals? Never trust brands.
Supermarket own brands
According to Ethical Consumer the least ethical choice would be to buy supermarket own brand non-dairy milks — Tesco, Sainsburys, Aldi, Asda, the lot. This is because supermarkets are inherently flawed as a system for food distribution, from ‘unhealthy’ foods being the cheapest and most readily available to the huge amount of food waste generated, to questionable (at best) sourcing of products.
However, these are the cheapest and most readily available option, and so the most accessible to the widest segment of society. Annoyingly, the supermarkets which tend to come out top on ethics and environmentalism (though bear in mind that top of a terrible field is no achievement) are Waitrose and Marks & Spencers, notoriously the middle-class, most expensive choices. If we do want to broaden the reach of oat milk and reduce society’s dependence on cow’s milk, realistically we can’t expect every consumer to spend double the price to make that change.
So supermarket own brand oat milk has its place in making the move away from dairy cost-effective. But if you can afford to pay extra, it’s definitely not a good idea to swap your Oatly milk for a supermarket own option.
Minor Figures has been widely suggested as a good alternative to Oatly. It’s a similar price point, retailing at around £1.50-£2.00 a litre. They’re a coffee company who claim to ‘care about climate change’ and the purpose of developing their oat milk was the realisation of the impact of dairy.
All sounds good, but there’s, unfortunately, a distinct lack of information available on their website about their commitment to sustainability and transparency about their production — supply chains, land use, water use, fertiliser use, transportation etc. They do say that they’re working on becoming a B-corp and carbon neutral company, which suggests they may be a good option. But, I’m not willing to openly back them as an alternative to Oatly, because I simply don’t know enough.
Small-scale producers in your local area
As demand has grown for non-dairy milk alternatives, we have seen more and more startups popping up to meet that demand. Many of these are also focused on the growth in the plastic-free market, often offering plastic-free non-dairy milk deliveries to the door. There’s M*lkman in London (now offered across most of the South via various distributors), New Milk in Bristol, ReRooted in Devon and Cornwall, and more.
If you can afford it and there’s something local to you, this is definitely worth exploring — these smaller companies are much better at sticking to their core values and keeping sustainability at the heart. That is, of course, until they grow sufficiently that an investor like Blackstone becomes interested.
Making your own homemade oat milk
Undoubtedly the most sustainable and ethical option is to make your own oat milk at home. If you choose organic oats grown in your own country, you’re minimising emissions from production and transport. Plus, it means no plastic packaging to contend with.
Let’s be real though, who has the time and effort to make their own oat milk every week? Veganism and climate change activism are already battling their appearance of middle class privilege, so let’s not start adding to that by suggesting everyone needs to make their own oat milk with ‘simple’ and ‘fuss free’ recipes. It just makes living sustainably seem even more out of reach.
So, here’s why I won’t be boycotting Oatly
My main issue with boycotting Oatly is what I’ve highlighted above, that I just don’t think there’s a viable high-street alternative option that’s accessible to everyone. You may have noticed that I kept coming back to cost in analysing other options. If we want more people to be able to access oat milk (which is also why Oatly are claiming to have taken this investment) then we need options that are sustainable, and which won’t break the bank. And with that in mind, I still think Oatly are one of the best options when it comes down to it — and let’s not forget that there are much much worse food and drink companies out there who we actually should be boycotting.
Personally, I will be looking at oat milk deliveries in my local area, but I also recognise that isn’t going to be an option for everyone. And frankly, I’d rather people continued to drink Oatly’s oat milk (controversial or not) than go back to drinking dairy milk.
At the same time, I actually do buy into Oatly’s argument for accepting investment from Blackstone — they’re making a huge investment company engage with a sustainable brand and diverting that money from being invested elsewhere.
Ultimately, it was a choice to continue their growth. Oatly could have decided to remain a small company, selling their product to vegan health stores. But they chose to go to the mass consumer market, to make oat milk an accessible and viable alternative for the most people possible. Blackstone’s investment will allow them to continue this.
Time will tell whether the investment means that they do start to compromise their core values and become just another sell-out brand. It’s growth vs good, and in our consumer capitalism world, growth wins out.
And whether you should boycott Oatly and stop buying their products? That’s for you to use this information and make your own mind up.