Some thoughts on the Oatly scandal

There's no use crying over spilt oat milk - unless you have to find a new brand that doesn't curdle in your coffee! The recent Oatly scandal has fans searching for an alternative plant milk but I still have many thoughts to unpack. Grab yourself a cup of tea (with whichever plant milk you prefer!) and have a read.

If you missed the scandal unfolding, here's a recap: Oatly is a Swedish oat drink company producing plant-based milk and other non-dairy products. The company has just come under huge criticism for selling a 10%, $200 million (£150m), stake to the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm with links to deforestation and Donald Trump. Oof.

While the group investing in Oatly also includes Oprah, Natalie Portman, former Starbuck's chief executive Howard Schultz, and Jay-Z's company, Roc Nation, consumers were outraged to learn that Steve Schwarzman, one of Blackstone's founders, is a top donor to Trump. Pretty disappointing news. The Blackstone Group also owns Hidrovias do Brasil, a company accused of deforesting the Amazon to build a terminal for exporting grain and soybeans, and has previously invested in SeaWorld - aka hell for marine animals. 

As a vegan company with sustainability at its core, this seems like an odd partnership for Oatly. In a statement released last week, the plant-based company defended its decision, stating:

"Getting a company like Blackstone to invest in us is something we have been working on to create maximum change to benefit the planet. From a sustainability perspective, we are convinced that helping shift the focus of massive capital towards sustainable approaches is potentially the single most important thing we can do for the planet in the long-term."

Of course, this might feel like damage control to many. Oatly missed an opportunity to be transparent with its customers about the terms of the Blackstone investment and how it plans to use the money from the start. But should Oatly have accepted the investment in the first place? It's tempting to hold "good" vegan, sustainable companies to a higher standard than we hold other companies, but, as always, it isn't that black and white.

We live in a broken system, one which rewards capitalist greed. We know it's expensive to do things the sustainable way - to build and run eco factories. Is there really a way for green businesses to succeed at the top and impact change at scale without compromising their ethics in some way? I'm not sure but I feel this situation is complex and nuanced, and requires more critical thinking. 

Is it fair to direct our outrage at Oatly but allow Blackstone and its other subsidiaries to continue business as usual? The Blackstone Group also has investments in United Biscuits (who own McVities biscuits and Jacob's Cream Crackers), Hilton Worldwide, Merlin Entertainment Group (Thorpe Park, Alton Towers), Bellagio hotel on the Las Vegas strip, the Bumble app and Airbnb, to name a few. Are we also planning to boycott these companies?

Is it hypocritical to boycott Oatly while using Facebook (involved with the Cambridge Analytica scandal), eating meat and dairy, shopping from fast fashion brands, ordering online, using a mobile phone (which have a huge ethical and environmental footprint), having an Amazon subscriptioneating at McDonald's or KFC, flying with British Airways (profiting from deportations), drinking Coca Cola, or banking with Barclays, HSBC or Santander? And if we're concerned by the Trump link, are we also planning to avoid all these companies, including Revlon, Estée Lauder, Taco Bell, WWE, Formula One, and Snapchat?

If we are to boycott Oatly then we'll need to find another oat milk alternative because we know oat milk is the most environmentally friendly choiceRude Health were boycotted a few years back after the co-founder attacked veganism (odd for a company selling plant-based products) and Alpro is owned by Danone, which makes dairy products and has previously sourced palm oil from a company linked to deforestation. Those of us who are able to switch to making our own oat milk will be few and far between. On top of this, most plant milks are packaged in Tetra Paks, which can only be recycled at dedicated Tetra Pak recycling points because they need to be recycled using specific machinery. How many of us are really going to that effort? Is it even possible for any of us to consume plant milk, or anything, completely ethically?

To boycott or not to boycott is the question and, to be honest, it's a tough one. Boycotting is a consumer-focused approach which may inspire Oatly to do better, but is unlikely to have much impact on Blackstone or wider industry practices. I'm a firm believer in using the power of our money to vote for the world we want to live in and I actively boycott fast fashion and beauty brands that test on animals, but I'm fully aware that being able to boycott is a privilege. Not everyone can choose to boycott and it's possible that boycotting can do more harm than good in some instances. When green businesses have a limit to how much they can grow, there will be a limit to the places they can be on sale and the price points they can sell at, restricting veganism and sustainability to health stores where they are accessible to middle-class shoppers but not to all. 

Of course, where we draw our line is personal. Whether or not we believe bad money can be used for good, and whether or not we choose to continue supporting Oatly, we can all agree that we need to be more critical of the system we live in and the brands we buy from, and regularly assess how our own actions align with our morals. To see real systemic change, we need to focus our pressure on governments and the companies at the top who hold the monopoly. We need an international ecocide law that will hold these companies and their CEOs accountable for the environmental damage they're causing.

Personally, I'm disappointed in Oatly's decision and feel it's important to call them out for their hypocrisy, but I know this problem runs much deeper than this one company, and I also have to address the hypocrisies in my own lifestyle. For now, I will be keeping a close eye on what Oatly does next and hoping it honours its promise to use this investment to push for real change.

I hope this post has given you a new piece of information or a new angle to consider. What do you think of Oatly's partnership with Blackstone? Do you think it's a clear boycott situation or are you also trying to get your head around the complexities of conscious consumerism in capitalism?

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