From hero to zero? Oatly’s controversial investment plans remind us that, sometimes, progression entails dancing with the devil.
It’s impossible to talk about impactful plant-based brands without mentioning Oatly. Since their rebrand in 2013, this Swedish, oat-based plant milk company catapulted themselves into both the basket and headspace of just about every conscious consumer in search of a non-curdling, eco-friendly milk alternative. And for good reason.
Oatly position themselves as a challenger brand, making them a company whose purpose is to bring about sustainable change. Here, Oatly encourage consumers not just to make an ethical swap to a low-carbon, plant-based milk, but to consider their impact on the world around them.
A purpose which they execute via no-holds-barred media campaigns (remember those London underground advertisements?) and bolshie run-ins with big industry players, including legal battles with the Swedish Dairy board.
Quite simply, Oatly was the brand that ethical consumers, myself included, championed, because they stuck two fingers up to convention, and served it a delicious oat milk latte.
I can’t help but think that it was Oatly’s pristine reputation as the rebellious and eco-focused brand to buy which led them to come under such an intense rain of consumer outcry and devastation last week when news of the brand’s latest investment profile was unveiled.
In case you weren’t aware, Oatly sold a £150 million stake to a huge private equity firm called Blackstone. Unfortunately for Oatly, it seems that Blackstone embodies the Man who Oatly has been attempting to stick it to since day 1.
Blackstone’s CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is a known donor to the Trump 2020 campaign, which infamously refutes the need to invest in carbon-friendly infrastructure or take the U-turn on climate change.
To make matters worse, Blackstone has also been accused of having ties to a company which promotes Amazonian deforestation. Not quite the type of investor you’d consider fitting for Oatly’s purpose-driven commitment.
And of course, this news lit the touch paper on social media, with consumers planning to boycott the brand for “selling out” to big corporations. On the surface of it all, it’s easy to ask, what the heck were Oatly thinking?
Well, as per usual, I believe they were thinking about the bigger picture. Something which was explained by Oatly’s CEO, Toni Petersson, at the time of sale: “Leaders in asset management like Blackstone play an essential role in order to create real sustainable change. It is my belief that capital has to turn green and do so for the right reasons.
“We chose to partner with Blackstone Growth because of their tremendous resources and unique reach. Our new partners’ commitment to supporting us and furthering of our mission is a clear indication of where the world is heading, which is in a new, more sustainable direction.”
It is clear from Oatly’s statement about choosing Blackstone that their purpose as a company has not changed, despite their investment. Furthermore, their choice to receive funding for expansion of their planet-positive model from a company whose previous investment history is somewhat tainted, demonstrates the power of green capital in encouraging investors to become more forward-thinking.
When challenger brands instigate discussions regarding sustainable practice at the seat of bigger corporations, seeds of large-scale change begin to be sewn within the larger corporation, resulting in long-term benefits for the planet. And who better than a no-nonsense brand such as Oatly to cultivate such important conversations?
I also find it quite contradictory that we are fast to abandon one brand for their collaborative business model with such public-enemies as Blackstone, but continue to praise the work of other brands who are similarly involved in important eco-deals.
Take Derek Sarno’s Wicked Kitchen brand, for example, which is supported and sold by Tesco – one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets, who invest in the dairy, meat, eggs and fish industries. Or the legendary Beyond Meat, a brand whose plant-based offerings are supported financially by Zandbergen, a global meat manufacturer.
These plant-based brands are growing from strength to strength in their business and influence, pivoting the future of their investor’s cash flow into more ethical and sustainable routes.
It is also important to remember that we live in a world where, unfortunately, a lifestyle free from any and all forms of corruption or cruelty is near enough impossible. From petrol cars, to currency, to supermarket shopping, to housing materials – everything we use on a daily basis is likely to be somewhat exploitative or negatively impactful somewhere down the line. Therefore, an all-or-nothing approach to ethical living isn’t always possible, even if the best of intentions are there. The emphasis should be on encouraging positive change in existing avenues.
Abandoning Oatly, a brand who are committed to promoting plant-based progression, would be a step in the wrong direction, and may discourage bigger companies from investing in the plant-based sector.
If our goal as a consumer is to encourage a sustainable future, our money shouldn’t be solely spent on brands who are staying still in the ethical market.
We should be encouraging the progression of brands who challenge the status quo and who are making efforts to alter manufacturing for the betterment of the planet – Oatly included.
Did Oatly deserve the backlash they received? I mean sure, there are other ways of funding your expansion plans which don’t involve companies such as Blackstone.
But if the opportunity presents itself to divert even a fraction of a bigger company’s cash flow into a sustainable, meaningful and impactful project, and begin to make meaningful changes in the boardrooms of industry big wigs, should this not be praised as a step closer to a greener world, rather than condemned as a dance with the devil?
Besides, no one wants a curdled coffee.
Charlotte Willis is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with Veganuary, the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness.