Oatly on Trial

A Response to Blackstone's Investment

Sustainable living can be an ethical and affordability minefield. Imprint catches up with 'Less Waste Laura' to discuss Oatly and Blacktstone's investment.

by Jessica Broadbent

My hand hovers over a small, over-packaged punnet of tomatoes. The image of a seahorse looped around plastic packaging floating in the sea crosses my mind and I move on towards the loose vegetables. Nothing organic, all sprayed with enough chemicals to clean a toilet. I go back to the over-packaged punnet with an alluring vine inside and inspect the extortionate price per kilo that its organic label affords it. I return again to the boxes of loose tomatoes to check where they were grown, and am taunted by the distance they’ve travelled so I can eat them out of season. This praying mantis swaying continues and my frustrated boyfriend wanders off in search of chocolate. I’ll come back for the tomatoes…

This is how I imagine many alt-milk veterans felt when the news hit that American investment management firm Blackstone had invested in Oatly. Blackstone paid 200 million dollars for around a 10% stake in Oatly earlier this year. This caused outrage from its most loyal consumers mainly due to Oatly’s sly under-the-carpet handling of announcing the deal, Blackstone’s dubious other investments (including links with deforestation in the Amazon), and immediate use of the miniscule expenditure on Oatly as a ‘greenwashing’ tool in its marketing.

'Oatly has now become a bit of a byword for Oat Milk, whacking cow’s milk off of its podium...'

It was when Cowspiracy burst onto the scene via Netflix in 2014 that I remember veganism really moving into mainstream consciousness around me. All of a sudden non-vegan friends were searching for meat and dairy alternatives. Conversations on food sustainability became more common. Perhaps it was this, coupled with a masterstroke of marketing thanks to a new CEO in 2012, that was Oatly’s ‘in’. CEO Tony Petersson changed the brand from an obscure Swedish health drink to the quirky, cool brand that grabbed international attention. Oatly has now become a bit of a byword for Oat Milk, whacking cow’s milk off of its podium and famously causing pandemonium when it went out of stock in New York in 2018.

Now the spotlight is on Oatly for different reasons. Curious to see if Blackstone will really make a difference to its popularity, I caught up with climate activist Laura Young, aka ‘Less Waste Laura, to hear her views on Oatly and their recent scandal.

Laura works in Campaign and Advocacy for international NGO Tearfund. She studied Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Dundee and has an MSC in Environmental Protection and Management from the University of Edinburgh. A side project to all this, ‘Less Waste Laura’ started after a New Year’s resolution in 2018 and has led her to speak publicly on climate issues, delivering a fantastic Ted Talk and collaborating with national press. She started by ditching plastic milk bottles and then tried Veganuary with her family, and has maintained a largely plant-based diet – including the switch to milk alternatives.

She heard about Oatly’s investment from an infographic on social media that said that Oatly was deforesting the Amazon. A bold statement indeed and a spanner in the works for her newfound sustainable drink of choice. She did some reading around Blackstone's links with Brazilian investments, and found that while the news of Blackstone’s Oatly investment had made headlines in the finance world, it had gone under the radar in the wider media. Laura was one of the early activists to post about the investment and her Twitter thread was picked up in national coverage by The Guardian.

'While (...) Blackstone’s Oatly investment had made headlines in the finance world, it had gone under the radar in the wider media.'

“The biggest thing I felt was betrayed because Oatly are the ones screaming and shouting about their sustainability and then they go and do this. You just think, of all the people to have gone and done it… that’s why it’s so frustrating. When you read their social media they sound really boastful. The messaging is way off.”

After the investment news came out Laura used her Instagram to share her message of disappointment, finding around 95% of her followers were on board with her reaction.

So why is the Blackstone investment so bad in Laura’s eyes?

“They are one of the [world’s] biggest investors. The bigger you are the less you probably pay attention to what your investments are doing. There are many, many, many investment companies in the world, many of which have not had ties to Amazon deforestation. Oatly courted Blackstone, they approached them. How many other investment companies did they bypass?

“Blackstone has over $500 billion worth of investments, and Oatly cost $200 million. So a tiny investment in comparison to others. Yet Blackstone were using Oatly on their Instagram bio and in their PR to talk about how sustainable they were. So it’s a clear greenwashing tactic and I just don’t stand for that.

“The projected income for Oatly next year means that there’s $40 million going back to Blackstone for their 10% stake. Where’s that money going to? They have no control over that.”

To add to Blackstone’s unpopularity, CEO Stephen Schwarzman poured over half a million dollars into Donald Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful election campaign this year – a president who described climate change as a hoax and just pulled out of the Paris climate deal.

'(Blackstone CEO) Schwarzman is now “one of the president’s most ardent Wall Street backers”'

According to a Bloomberg report by Shahien Nasiripour and Hema Parmar, Schwarzman is now “one of the president’s most ardent Wall Street backers” who “single-handedly accounts for the vast bulk of the reported contributions toward Trump’s re-election effort” since the beginning of 2018.

“I totally understand we can’t control where our money goes,” says Laura, “but if you know this then that’s a company that I definitely don’t want my money to go towards.”

So what could Oatly have done instead? Many have suggested a Brewdog-style customer-led crowdfunder model would have worked a dream. Laura agrees.

“Honestly if Oatly turned round to their fans and said we need 200 million dollars, we’re going to do a Crowdfunder, they would have got it.

“I know that with investments you get a lot more than just money, like connection, but it wasn’t out of the question for them to find this somewhere else. There are investment companies that are green that they didn’t choose.”

So what about the response from Oatly in all this?

On it’s website Oatly states: Our idea was, and still is, to offer plant-based options that are so amazing, the general public doesn’t feel like it is a compromise to eat them. In doing so we can trigger a shift to a more sustainable world. This journey, however, has resulted in many inconvenient and uncomfortable decisions. On multiple occasions, we’ve found ourselves stepping on the toes of both our friends and those who disagree with our mission, and now we’ve gone and done it again.

Laura was offered a meeting with Oatly to discuss her concerns. She spoke to Ashley Allen, Chief Sustainability Officer, who was hired this year after the Blackstone deal. The reasoning Ashley gave Laura was that Oatly wants to make a difference and show that green investments are possible and are profitable. But Ashley accepted that the company has no control over where its money goes, or in general over Blackstone. Although it was a useful step Laura felt like the brand had been more reactive than genuine, and was not persuaded to go back.

'...can rapid global expansion ever be a dream for a brand that is 100% committed to being sustainable and ethical?'

When you start a business the idea is usually to grow it and make money. So can rapid global expansion ever be a dream for a brand that is 100% committed to being sustainable and ethical? It’s a tough order. In a 2018 report Oatly talked about the general growth of the company. It said that a large reason for the funding was to help it conquer markets in America and China. But as Laura pointed out, rapid global growth is problematic in itself no matter how sustainable a product is.

Ultimately consumerism is at the heart of the problem. Laura says, “In general we need to stop consuming as much as possible, and unfortunately that means no more big businesses; no more big monopolies and conglomerates and multinational companies. We just need to slow down.

“With Covid we now have a chance to think about this capitalist economic growth model that is broken. It’s broken because it’s based on consumption that we can’t keep up with – and then with a global pandemic it crashes.”

'“There are radical things happening in the world because of Covid, (...) if these decisions will be made it’s now.'

Is she hopeful that the forced slowing down in 2020 will lead to positive change for policy? She’s not sure. “When the furlough scheme was announced I thought ‘this is amazing’. This is a huge step in the right direction for valuing people and supporting them through a crisis. Who’d have thought a Conservative government would have done anything like that?

“There are radical things happening in the world because of Covid. I think if anything, if these decisions will be made it’s now. We just need to hope that there’s people who are willing to make more of these radical changes to do a just and fair green recovery. I think I am hopeful, but I am hopeful that out of this mess we will come out different.”

Laura has used her platform to explain her decision to boycott Oatly. Cancel culture, the trend to publicly boycott a brand or individual, is growing in popularity, but how much impact can it have?

“I would never tell people to boycott something, I just tell them what I’m thinking. I do the whole ‘this is what I’m doing’. Here’s all the facts and figures, you can make up your own mind.

“This debate opened people’s eyes to the conversation of what’s behind a brand, investing in green companies, and who your profits go to. People want to know more about this and how they can be more aware.”

For Laura, an issue with cancel culture is the treatment of the individual versus the treatment of organisations. For her, one of the biggest fails in the sustainability world is people being held to higher standards than companies.

She says, “If I turned around to my followers and said that I was going to receive investment from BP and Shell, I would be dragged through the mud for that. I think individuals are held to crazy standards. If you see someone with a plastic straw, they get more hate than governments sometimes.

'I think when we talk about cancel culture, absolutely, governments and businesses need to be held to account...”'

“So I think when we speak about cancel culture and Oatly, we need to remember that this is now a multi-million pound company and this decision was made by a board of people. An investment like this will have had months in the planning with maybe a hundred people working on it. We need to remember that when holding it to account we are holding to account a lot of people who have made a conscious decision. That is better than holding one individual to account. I think when we talk about cancel culture, absolutely, governments and businesses need to be held to account and called out for things that are wrong.”

Laura believes cancel culture is an effective way of getting a message across. “Oatly are still getting flurries of comments on the subject. I’ve seen a lot of independent cafes and health shops outright boycott them. Compared to the massive supermarkets they’re trying to get into in America that are going to sell thousands of cartons a week that’s obviously not going to make a difference, but they’re losing their core customer base. Ultimately, they speak in economics. So they’re not going to listen until they see a dip in sales. But this boycott could maybe do that, who knows.”

Laura is aware that with Blackstone's investment it won’t take long for Oatly to bounce back. For her, the best thing to come of this issue was consumers having their voice heard. She calculated that around a million follower’s worth of influencers cut ties with Oatly after seeing her post. Although the longevity of the campaign in consumer consciousness remains to be seen, its immediate impact is clear.

'It’s not enough to say you’re sustainable but do things that aren’t. It’s not enough to not be transparent.'

“We got a response regardless of what you think about that response. We got people thinking and feeling interested enough to learn and share. It’s not enough to say you’re sustainable but do things that aren’t. It’s not enough to not be transparent. This showed that a bit of online activism can go a long way.”

The cancel culture practice hasn’t been around long enough to be able to properly analyse its impact, but there are a few interesting examples. This includes the public backlash towards L'Oréal over the treatment of Munroe Bergdorf, the black transgender model who was fired from L'Oréal after talking about white supremacy on her social media. This year Munroe received a formal apology and joined its new Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board. For Laura, the rise of cancel culture serves as a warning to businesses of the need to be authentic.

So where does this whole debacle leave us, the humble shoppers, scouring the supermarkets in search of products and brands that tick every box? Laura’s advice is this...

“Not everything has to be organic, local, seasonal, plastic free, and palm-oil free, because you will be there forever and you will come home with only two things. Remember that we are in a broken system, we can only buy what we can – particularly with Covid.

“Not everything can be perfect unless you have unlimited time and money. Maybe just pick one thing to focus on each time. It will give you a chance to try new products and find out if you like them. If you pick one thing to change in your weekly shop, that’s 52 things you’ve changed by the end of the year!”

'"Absolutely we need to make those incremental changes and if enough people make the changes, big companies will follow.”'

In terms of sustainable alternative milk, she thinks oat milk is the best. The benefits are that oats are grown more locally, have less carbon emissions, are self-pollinating and that oat milk is less water intensive to produce than something like almond or dairy.

“I’m a firm believer that individuals can make massive changes. You only have to look at your own life to see that. I just don’t like holding people to account for it because that’s not fair. Ultimately the change should start with you. Every person on this planet has influence over the people they live with, the people they work with, the people that they interact with online. If you even just change refusing a straw in a bar or ordering oat milk instead of cow’s milk you might inspire a few other people to do it. Absolutely we need to make those incremental changes and if enough people make the changes, big companies will follow.”

So next time you are at the supermarket, choose your battle and don’t berate yourself for not being all things to all causes. The Oatly debate has shown that we can’t be complacent, we can never claim to be 100% anything in our choices, but that we must keep trying.

Jess is a writer currently living in France. After working in marketing and journalism for several years she got itchy feet and has spent the last few years travelling the world, admiring its beauty and bemoaning our lack of consideration for it as human beings. She loves everything to do with the outdoors, food, wine, and - most importantly - cats. Read her previous article on living without a fridge here!