Dirty money and greenwashing: Oatly’s recent investment deal shocks consumers

By Holly Davies

Oatly is the latest in a long line of brands to get called out for potentially unethical practices. Their previous status as an inspiration for small, sustainable businesses is what makes their recent investment move so shocking. 

For many following a plant-based diet, Oatly has also become a staple milk alternative due to its creamy texture (the barista variety is to die for) and also its increasing prevalence on supermarket shelves. But what is absolutely integral – for me at least – is how oat milk stacks up against other alternatives in terms of its sustainability; something which Oatly’s brash marketing has always spotlighted. That’s why I was so heartbroken when, while scrolling through insta stories this week, I was hit by an infographic that greatly questioned Oatly’s commitment to the environment – and it’s clear that I’m not the only one. 

How invested in the environment are they?

In early July, the brand confirmed a $200m investment deal that saw celebrities including Natalie Portman, Jay-Z, and Oprah Winfrey buying stakes in the company. While this could be seen as a positive move towards gaining the already well-known brand more recognition, there were more nefarious interests involved than previously thought. It has since come to light that among these investors was Blackstone Group. 

The US private equity firm came under fire last year following claims that they were contributing to deforestation in the Amazon and further environmental destruction through their involvement in building highways to promote the exporting of soy and grain in the area. The firm did dismiss these claims in a post on their website but this is not the only cause for concern that environmentalists have cited in their operations. 

CEO and Chairman of Blackstone Group, Stephen A. Schwarzman, has previously donated to America First Action, a SuperPAC that focuses on advancing the agenda of Donald Trump’s government. In 2019 the company also hired David Urban, an American lobbyist who also has ties to the President. While we may not be able to the influence of these high-level figures in brand’s public image, it is difficult to trust their values when they support someone so opposite to the values that Oatly claims to hold. 

The President is a well-known climate denier and has made it a cornerstone of his campaign to disparage and spread misinformation on the Green New Deal – specifically attacking Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who is a major proponent for the resolution. It is also important to remember that Trump has been clear with his intentions to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation as soon as is legally allowed in November 2020. 

All of these beliefs are dangerous for the climate movement and Schwarzman appears to be a major donor to Trump’s re-election campaign, therefore giving him the ability to actually further these policies. It’s no secret that if Trump does get another four years, there will be little hope for mitigating the imminent climate crisis by the time he is out of office. 

Greening the deal

So how could a company so outspoken on the climate crisis accept money from those that seem so opposed to their values? Oatly’s argument for the deal is that they are seeking to green future investments and decisions of the major firm. In a statement to Expressen CEO, Toni Petersson said the brand’s modus operandi has always been to “dare to make uncomfortable decisions to push the world in the right direction”. He believes that the deal is “a first step in the road” to influencing those who control large capital flow – like Blackstone – to become greener. 

While this, at first, might sound like hollow reasoning, Oatly does appear to have a steadfast brand that believes in no-nonsense sustainability. The reason that they have cited for more investors is a need to scale up their practices sustainably, in order to spread the availability of the product further afield.

Access is a major issue in terms of individuals being able to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, and this move follows steps that they have taken to expand access in the past. Speaking to Plant Based News, Ishen Paran, the general manager of Oatly UK, cited Greenpeace and the UN’s call “for a shift in capital from brown to green investment”. He believes that they are going to have to work from within the system to transform existing major players in the economy; acting as Trojan horses rather than staying on the sidelines. 

Giving the benefit of the doubt, this move could actually be a step forward and a new strategy for sustainable companies. Their hope is that by proving their worth monetarily it will encourage the firm, and those like it, to invest in more sustainable companies in the future. It is difficult to situate this argument though in the wider realm of climate discourse at the moment. At the current moment, it is hard to envision a world where the degree of change we need to make in order to save our planet is compatible with continuing the capitalist system under which we operate. 

Economic models like Doughnut economics and the Circular Economy, suggest that we will have to unlearn and undo much of the learned behaviours that have resulted from our current economic model – such as rampant consumerism and overproduction. It has become overwhelmingly clear that much of the inequality that exists because of this system is intrinsically linked to the climate crisis. Food scarcity, loss of natural resources, and pollution from manufacturing will only worsen if we continue on this path. While this doesn’t mean that Oatly’s intentions aren’t genuine, only time will tell if the deal will result in positive change. 

Consciously imperfect

What is important to remember though is that it is pretty much impossible to be perfect in following an ethically and environmentally conscious diet. I don’t do it and I don’t expect anyone else to either. The burden of mitigating climate change is continuously and unfairly pushed onto the individual and more often than not results in shaming and unfair expectations of those who either do not have the means, time, or access to resources that could help them live a more sustainable lifestyle. 

In a report by the Climate Accountability Institute, it was found that 35% of global emissions since 1965 can be attributed to just 20 major companies, and governments around the world continue to subsidise and support new fossil fuel projects and these very companies. As citizens, there is often very little that we can actually do to change the practices of these major corporations. 

Collins Dictionary defines an Ecotarian as “a person who eats only food that has been produced in a way that does not harm the environment”. I am an Ecotarian…ish. I try my best. I also don’t tell people this anymore because it takes a while to explain and I don’t expect people to care. So instead I say that I am vegan…ish. And I sometimes eat eggs and maybe a slice of someone else’s pizza that has real(!) cheese on it. But I don’t feel good about these things. I feel as if it might be a sign that I don’t have a lot of willpower and that deep down I don’t truly stand for anything. 

This is not a good feeling. But then I think about it a bit more and realise that in choosing to identify as Ecotarian – or something close to it – it is less of a strict set of rules and more an active effort to do the best that I can for the planet. And this is where the nuance in the recent realisations surrounding Oatly’s investors really becomes visible. 

Don’t get me wrong! This does not mean that we can just stop taking responsibility for our actions. For me, it’s about finding a balance. If oat milk is the most sustainable alternative on the market at the moment, and Oatly is the only brand that I can find then I am willing to forgive myself for buying it. However, I do strongly believe that the concept of voting with your wallet is sadly true. In the meantime, I will definitely be researching what other brands may be more ethically in line with my own values.

Every time you choose to eat less meat and stop participating in mass-farming; every time you shop second-hand instead of buying from fast-fashion outlets; every time you take a 4-hour train instead of an hour-long plane ride to Amsterdam, it matters. But we also can’t expect to be perfect 100% of the time when the systems in place are purposefully built for us to not realise the harm that they could be doing. Instead, maybe it’s due time that the – hopefully – positive actors who have gained some financial power in the movement, like Oatly, take some of this responsibility for change on themselves. 

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