By Mica Anderson
If you’re anything like me, you try to offset the crushing dread of existing on a very, very sick and warming planet by making the most ethical choices you can. And yes, I KNOW, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and I am a very small drop in a very big ocean, but I believe there is no effort too small. So I, like many others, discovered Oatly, and fell hard - a delicious milk alternative, with charming packaging, and Swedish roots. What’s not to like?
Well, lots, apparently. After a recent announcement that the public equity investment group Blackstone had taken a large stake in Oatly, there was mass uproar. Blackstone’s history is far from squeaky clean - deforestation allegations, and a CEO that donated to Trump. It’s not ideal. And after the publication of a strongly-worded Twitter thread, a lot of people decided that Oatly was capital-C-cancelled. And while I’m no stranger to cutting out companies with unethical tendencies, I have abstained on this front. My problem with cancelling Oatly outright is two-fold.
If we, as consumers, try and operate under a mindset that we will find a company without faults, we will be searching for a long, long time. There exists no company that has never made a mistake - or, at least, not had enough money to cover them up. In fact, operational infractions have formed the essence of many of the world’s largest food manufacturers - Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola. I don’t even believe Oatly has made a mistake at this juncture - unethical practices formed the foundation of many of the largest consumer companies operating today - so it’s difficult to find a large-scale business with a spotless reputation. Oatly, though only founded in the 90’s, seems to have kept their sustainable beliefs at the core of their production since its inception.
However, I understand people’s qualms with Oatly in this particular instance - it’s a company that has painted its image as that of an eco-conscious, caring one - with respect for the planet, for animals, and for the people it provides its products to. Of course when it appears to have ‘sold its soul’, users will be frustrated. It feels like yet another moment of performative greenwashing. But when we ‘cancel’ companies such as Oatly, who seem to have made every other effort possible to be sustainable in practice, we don’t allow them to hear and accept valid criticism, and change their ways. Although, in this case, it is hard to find a valid criticism - consumption of Oatly products has grown massively in the last few years, and money is needed for them to continue their practices, and keep up with demand. They needed to find investment from somewhere, and Blackstone is a stalwart agency. Their website, which now includes a detailed page on the company’s reasoning as to choosing Blackstone, maintains that they chose a big name in the hopes that other public equity companies would realise there was profit to be made in sustainable businesses. There is even a reference to the claims of Amazonian deforestation - which have since been disproven. As for the Trump investments - I don’t claim to excuse those, but I don’t see how the personal political leanings of Blackstone’s CEO should mean that Oatly has to shoulder the blame.
Oatly took a gamble in taking their products to mainstream supermarkets - and luckily, the demand was there. The blue cartons, lined up amongst the plastic cartons of dairy milk and Alpro alternatives, piqued interest. Many shoppers, including myself, were pushed to question our consumption of milk - the environmental consequence of consuming dairy milk, and by extension, other milk alternatives. Oat milk has proven time and time again that it succeeds almond, soya, and coconut milks in sustainable benefit. With a condemnation of such a popular company, I fear the habit of intuitive shopping may become a fond memory. Sustainable food choices are still not quite in the mainstream, and it would be a shame to shut out a company with genuine good faith in mind. I’ll still be taking oat milk in my coffee - in the hopes that one day, the range of choice for such products will be as extensive as those without the planet’s best interests in mind.