The End of Oatly?
Being part of the sustainability community, you get used to boycotting things you once consumed without a second thought; meat, fashion, makeup, the list of problematic products could go on for hours. But there was one thing we all valued as safe - oat milk - more specifically Oatly and their wonderful array of products from flavoured milks, to ice cream, to yoghurts, to my personal favourite, Oatly Barista. Today, however, we learn that in this capitalistic, consumeristic world that profits from climate destruction, absolutely nothing is sacred; not even Oatly.
Of course, my dramatic exposition is referring to Oatly’s recent controversy, which involved selling its soul to the Dev- sorry, I mean selling a £150 million stake to the Blackstone group, a multinational private equity firm led by CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who just so happens to be one of Donald Trump’s bezzie mates and donor to his 2020 presidential campaign. You know, the Donald Trump that has repeatedly denied the existence of climate change, and has routinely rolled back progressive climate change policies laid out by Obama allowing the US to continue its growth into a global polluting giant - that Trump.
‘But, how could Oatly do this when everything Blackstone stands for goes so acutely against what Oatly have built their company and consumer base on?’ I hear you ask. Well, the answer is very simple - money. However, before we get into the nitty gritty of why this deal is so shitty, let’s take a closer look at Blackstone and their incredible dark history.
How bad is Blackstone?
Very, very bad. While being an active supporter of the Trump presidency, what should arguably concern climate activists more is the part the group have played in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Blackstone own two firms in Brazil which control large amounts of Amazonian land, which in recent years they have deforested in order to create farmland for the cultivation of grain and soybeans (though, don’t be fooled into thinking this soy is being used for plant milk, as the majority of soy exports are used for animal feed). Their hand in climate destruction is so bad that one 2019 article called CEO Schwarzman the ‘driving force behind Amazon deforestation’.
Along with this, Blackstone have gained a reputation as ‘slumlords’ in the US. Following the housing crash which left millions of Americans homeless, Blackstone bought up tens of thousands of cheap homes and rented them out for as much as 180% of a city’s market rent in some cases. Most of the homes have subsequently been left to fall into disrepair, as Blackstone routinely refuses to subsidise maintenance fees, ignores requests to fix electrical and plumbing problems, and shifts all financial responsibility to tenants for any improvements.
Their dodgy deals don’t end there though. Blackstone engages in shadow banking, a process which allows non-banks to engage in lending without being subjected to restrictions implemented following the 90s/00s banking crash. The group has also received investment from Saudi Arabia, the country responsible for deadly bombing in Yemen and multiple other international crimes - in 2017, the Saudi government contributed around $2.5 billion to Blackstone’s infrastructure fund. More recently, Blackstone has formed connections in China, despite its involvement in the persecution and enslavement of Uighur Muslims. And to top it all off, Blackstone had shares in SeaWorld, a.k.a. the world’s biggest marine prison, until 2017, at which time it sold its investment for three times their original price.
Why is this investment so bad for Oatly?
Oatly has built itself on being a ‘good company’, and as a result it has attracted customers who are similarly concerned with the ethics behind what they buy. It is stated very clearly on their website that they value people before profits, yet this latest investment just goes to show that this isn’t true.
Already, Oatly is facing massive backlash from customers all over the world who are vowing to boycott, including some big names in sustainability leadership like Aja Barber and Isaiah Hernanadez (aka queerbrownvegan). Barber stated in an Instagram comment on the company’s latest post; “You can’t be the same value based company. Your money flows upwards into the pot which destroys the Amazon. No two ways about it. You are the small fish, they are the big fish. You are part of the game now. Consider this the termination of our previous relationship. So sad because I really liked you all!” Similarly, Hernandez wrote underneath, “Why are you destroying natural forests? You have a lot of explaining to do.”
In an effort to explain themselves, it seems Oatly have been frantically doing damage control with a formulaic response to complaints, basically consisting of assuring people they are “still Oatly”, telling people that the new investment will allow them to steer global capital towards green projects, and encourage other private equity firms to follow suit. But as one tweet from their UK Twitter revealed, they are currently in a period of ‘hyper-growth’, meaning they aren’t making any profit ‘and for a significant period [their] investors will not be’. When all they have as leverage over Blackstone is the profits they can offer, how are they intending to encourage the company to do better when by their own admission they are currently making them no money? If Blackstone wanted to invest in climate programmes, they could have done so at any point since their inception with any of their $7 billion+ revenue - all Oatly is to them is a box tick on their sustainability statement.
So, should we boycott Oatly?
Yes. If we have learnt anything from this controversy it’s that big corporations and sustainability don’t mix, and if Oatly really stood for the now-empty statements on their website they would encourage us to boycott too. While I have also considered the fact that Oatly’s growth as a business is entirely dependent on its entrance into the blood-money-stained world of capitalism, I don’t think this is a good enough argument in their favour - after all, they haven’t just sold shares to a bad company, they have sold shares to one of the worst, and one that couldn’t be more at odds with what they once stood for. So, it is with a heavy heart that I end my relationship with Oatly - but, I’ll be sure to move swiftly on to a much better, more ethical partner; Minor Figures. Let’s pray that they don’t make the same mistake.
Image via Unsplash.