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Oatly crosses an ethical boun-dairy: how eco-friendly are plant-based milks?

Written by Science

“Our thinking in working with Blackstone was quite the opposite of black and white; it was an intense thought process that was nuanced and in line with how we’ve often thought about change.”  

This was lifted from the plant-based milk company Oatly’s press statement, as they came under attack for accepting a $200M dollar from Blackstone, a private investment fund with a dubious environmental and social record (though obviously not unusual for … a private investment fund).

Blackstone has been accused by the UN of contributing to the global housing crisis, has suspect links to deforestation in the Amazon, and the firm is headed by Trump donor Stephen Schwartzman. These are issues which don’t slide neatly into Oatly’s image of vegan utopia. 

Many ex-fans of the brand are now threatening to boycott. As Oatly says, these financial decisions may not be black or white, but it’s a verdict that those who previously bought Oatly products will have to come to:

Will they boycott or not?

Undeniably, all plant-based milk alternatives are on average more environmentally friendly than dairy. Dairy outstrips plant-based milks when it comes to land use, water use and C02 emissions. Oatly is only one of many plant-based companies offering similar products in supermarkets, and there’s a massive local supply in many regions around the world; if you find Oatly’s behaviour to contradict your own environmental and ethical values, then you have a multitude of other options rather than resorting to dairy milk.

Undeniably, all plant-based milk alternatives are on average more environmentally friendly than dairy

Some argue the revelations in Oatly’s funding emphasise how impossible it is to make ethical decisions in a capitalist market. Whilst plant-based milks are inherently more environmentally friendly, the money which derives from their distribution can sometimes end up contributing to a much larger environmental disaster further down the line. 

In Oatly’s press statement, they touch on an issue which troubles most ethical companies attempting to grow their brand. When Oatly reached a level of support for their product, and had the momentum to expand, they reached a crossroads: to continue to stock specialist stores? Or spread into supermarkets? 

Both routes have valid justification.

Specialist health and vegan stores are not accessible to swathes of the general population, and a significant proportion of people who have cut dairy from their diets have only been able to do so thanks to the reduced prices and easier availability accompanying the introduction of plant milk into supermarkets. In this decision, Oatly has helped many people switch to a more eco-friendly diet. However, as they recognise in their statement: “the only problem with being in the supermarkets was that a significant part of their income was generated from selling meat and dairy products”. Supporting supermarkets is on the whole inadvertently boosting profits of the meat / dairy industry.

This quandary aside, Oatly argues that by stocking supermarkets worldwide, they are generating a conversation about the products we choose to consume. With the same reasoning, they argue:

Blackstone is like the biggest supermarket of the private equity sector. We thought that if we could convince them that it’s as profitable (and in the long-term even more profitable) to invest in a sustainability company like Oatly, then all the other private equity firms of the world would look, listen and start to steer their collective worth of $4 trillion into green investments.

In issuing a transparent statement, Oatly has made the bold decision to defend their actions; they could have just accepted this as a mistake, reversed the funding from Blackstone or just said ‘sorry, won’t happen again!’.

Whilst in the short term, Oatly’s investment may seem to counteract their goals, maybe this tactic could revolutionise the food industry. With the climate crisis closing in, maybe we are overdue ‘ethical’ companies making these risky decisions. It could be considered a form of drastic action, apt for our times.

Whilst in the short term, Oatly’s investment may seem to counteract their goals, maybe this tactic could revolutionise the food industry. With the climate crisis closing in, maybe we are overdue ‘ethical’ companies making these risky decisions

Is this as much of a fiasco as it initially appears? Regardless of what you think, Oatly’s subjected scrutiny has shed more light on the question: are plant based alternatives really as eco friendly as they seem?

Featured Image: Pixabay

Last modified: 11th September 2020

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