Storm in a Coffee Cup
written by Mara
Cancelling dairy-alternative darling Oatly?
Cancel culture (noun; ˈkæn.səl ˌkʌl.tʃər - behaviour in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you).
The tale to be told is old: from Unilever acquiring Ben & Jerry’s and the Vegetarian Butcher, Alpro joining dairy giant Danone, to today’s story of Blackstone getting a slice of Oatly’s pie. Big Boys moving towards more sustainable practices, or greenwashing and window-dressing?
If you read the news or generally follow any vegan or sustainability-related Instagram account, you will have heard it. Oatly, our beloved Swedish oat milk brand that makes our coffee creamy, or chai velvety, and our hot chocolate smooth, has received 200million USD from the Blackstone Group to help the brand extend its “global leadership position in the years to come”.
Oatly, since its inception in the 90s, has expanded to become an internationally admired producer of plant-based milk alternatives made with oats. With its clever, tongue-in-cheek ads, sustainable mission, and transparency at its core, it is a dream come true for anyone who aches to make better choices. Their challenge “hey, food industry: show us your numbers!” accompanied with a carbon footprint label on all their packaging enabled conscious consumers to consider their choices based on the overall impact of their purchases. Oatly is leading the charge and is (usually) well-beloved, specifically by young consumers. So, what’s wrong with expanding and making the firm ever-more popular?
The problem lies at the heart of Blackstone: presumably, you have heard of them, one of the world’s biggest players in the investment realm, a large, global private equity firm. Let’s look at some key facts that might point towards diverging values between Blackstone and Oatly fans (who – semi-safe to assume – often hold more liberal viewpoints).
CEO of Blackstone, Stephen Schwartzman is known as a close ally to Trump and an avid donor to the Trump-campaign, especially important to consider against the backdrop of the upcoming US elections this November 3rd. According to CNBC, Schwartzman “recently gave $3 million to the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, and has been a close confidant of the president’s since his inauguration”. This fact alone might be enough to turn the metaphorical oat milk of Gen Z and millennial supporters sour. Beyond the political aspects to be considered, Blackstone is accused to have a stake in Amazonian rainforest deforestation. A while back, a Twitter thread pointing towards investment in Brazil positioned Blackstone as the partial owner of Hidrovas de Brazil and Patria Investimento. Accusations are being rejected by Blackstone who defend their sustainability efforts. In the Amazon, the company has helped to build a tremendously controversial highway to facilitate the plantation and cultivation of soy and grain. Additional yet indirect consequences of the highway are linked to continued mining, logging, and deforestation in hard-to-reach areas of the Amazon.
Things accelerated quickly after the deal, when Less Waste Laura tweeted “I don't want my money going to the destruction of the planet, and putting peoples lives and land at risk just so that I can have a creamy coffee in the morning!”.
Oatly’s account responded to the viral thread:
“We’re still the same company with sustainability at the core of everything we do, which includes who we choose as owners, as we need to move global capital in a sustainable direction if we’re to see real change. We’re convinced that everyone needs to start somewhere to make changes – and this includes private equity. We need to encourage the finance community to make sustainable investments with their capital if we want to address climate change – we all need to contribute. This investment has now allowed the world’s leading player in private equity to steer their capital towards sustainability so they can make a positive contribution. We understand our owners can have other investments that don’t fit with what we stand for, however, they believe in us and our mission – and if we just shut out the companies that may make less sustainable choices, we won’t give them the chance to improve and make more sustainable choices, so global capital will keep being steered in a less sustainable direction. Through the success of this investment, we want other businesses to see that it pays off to invest in sustainability, so more capital is steered in this direction in the future. Our goal to further the transition to plant-based for the sake of the planet has not changed. We’ll keep driving our mission to shift the global diet to become more plant-based for a more sustainable future, and we want to encourage the rest of the business community to start seeing sustainable investments as the way forward. We will always put sustainability first, and we’ve now received more of the means we needed to further drive our mission.”
The baseline of Oatly’s defence is the argumentation that by allowing not-so-sustainable (or rather: unsustainable) investors put their money into sustainable ventures to make their portfolios greener, steers the finance-world giants into a more sustainable direction. The logic pleads for a domino-effect to encourage further sustainable investments in the finance community to expand the positive impact. However, not only does the argument seem futile, the 200million USD investment was by far the smallest Blackstone has ever done. While Oatly’s vision of changing the investment realm from the inside out seems inspiring, it appears to be rather naïve.
Is this just another instance of greenwashing where firms deceptively market sustainable and environmentally-conscious values without actually adhering to them just to make their brand seem more woke than it is? Presumably so. While of course, the investment will bring in vast returns for Oatly, it will also do so for Blackstone as they continue to aid the Amazon rainforest deforestation.
We could consider Oatly as just another victim of how the capitalist world turns, but when looking at a firm with an estimated worth at 2 Billion USD – Oatly still has a choice who its investors are. And by making this choice, Oatly has undermined what they originally stood for - making it possible for consumers to shop with their values aligned.
On the other hand, the fact that global food production must change and reduce its impact on the environment is no longer debatable. For brands like Oatly to become household names, investment is necessary. For these purposes, Blackstone's monetary resources surely hold the key to expand, grow, and eventually displace conventional dairy sales.
On a final note, in our consumer capitalist world, growth usually comes up trumps. Time will tell if Oatly sticks to its initial core values, or compromises them to become another sell-out brand; if Blackstone’s investment inspires other investors to jump onto the bandwagon or not; and if this creates the change postulated by Oatly’s defence statement.
We'd love to hear your views on this. Let us know in the comments, or get in touch with the content committee and/or authors of this post via email@example.com !
Grim, R. (2019, August 27). A Top Financier of Trump and McConnell Is a Driving Force Behind Amazon Deforestation. The Intercept.
Schwartz, B. (2020, August 17). Private equity giant Blackstone hires pro-Trump lobbyist David Urban to target Pentagon, State Department. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/17/blackstone-hires-pro-trump-lobbyist-to-target-pentagon-state-department.html
Helmore, E. (2020, September 2). Activists sour on Oatly vegan milk after stake sold to Trump-linked Blackstone. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/sep/01/oatly-vegan-milk-sale-blackstone
foodnavigator.com. (2020, September 4). Oatly ‘cancelled’? Fans pledge boycott over contentious shareholder Blackstone. Foodnavigator. https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/09/04/Oatly-cancelled-Fans-pledge-boycott-over-contentious-shareholder-Blackstone
Figueiras, S. (2020, September 8). We Asked Oatly About The Blackstone Deal & Here’s What They Said. Green Queen.