A Look At Why The Internet is Boycotting Oatly, And Its Link To Amazon Deforestation

Over the weekend, sustainable oat milk brand Oatly sparked outrage on Twitter due to new corporate investors Blackstone, whose ties to President Trump and the Amazon rainforest’s deforestation threatens the food company’s ethical brand image.

IMAGE Courtesy of Less Waste Laura

Early Saturday morning, I awoke to #Oatly trending on Twitter. What I assumed at a first glance must be due to one of their kitchy advertising campaigns, or perhaps just a communal confession of love for the dairy-alternative drink, I quickly realised was a sea of outraged comments that the self-professed sustainable brand had secured investment from a company tied to Trump and Amazon rainforest deforestation. Yikes.

Soon my timeline was awash with shock and disappointment as another once-loved cult indie brand appeared to have sold-out to corporate investment, and in doing so had foregone their green ethics that attracted so many to the brand. 

I too was disappointed, as someone who became an oat milk convert in 2019. I wanted to avoid it, unread it, and continue drinking my chocolate Oatly in peace. But while it’s easy to become desensitised to online callouts and ‘cancellations’ – to crucify those already out of favour and disregard the critiques of our faves – it is worth exploring in further detail why users were so upset by this news. 

Oatly is a vegan brand from Sweden that produces alternatives to dairy products from oats. As stated on the brand’s website, “our sole purpose as a company is to make it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process.”

Oatly has a long history of trailblazing sustainability in the food production business. As part of the company’s overarching mission to reduce the CO2e footprint of the food industry by shifting consumers’ consumption choices, the company last year added a carbon footprint label to their products in Europe. By making that data available, Oatly enabled consumers to consider the carbon footprint of their food choices before they buy, just as they do with nutritional content. The label was accompanied by a challenge to the larger industry titled “Hey, food industry: show us your numbers!”

This has made the brand incredibly popular with young consumers and a leader in the dairy-alternative product market, which has more than doubled in the last five years in the UK. Due to consumers’ increased focus on the environment, the free-from industry’s impact is expected to continue to grow and Oatly is leading the charge.

On 14th July this year, it was announced that Oatly had secured a $200 million investment from Blackstone Growth, one of the world’s largest global investment businesses, in exchange for a 10 per cent stake.

It is here, with the group’s CEO, that lies the problem. CEO of Blackstone Group, Steve Schwartzman, is reported to be a close ally of US President Donald and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which is enough to make most millennial and gen-Z consumers turn sour, especially here in the UK where a majority of 18-34-year-olds hold left-leaning political views. The Intercept reported that in 2016, Schwartzman donated $2.5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, McConnell’s Super PAC and put Jim Breyer, McConnell’s billionaire brother-in-law, on the board of Blackstone. Two years later, Schwarzman donated a further $8 million to McConnell’s Super PAC.

Beyond his political ties, Schwartzman’s business ethics have been called into question by Oatly consumers. Blackstone Group partially owns a Brazilian firm that is helping transform the Amazon from jungle to farmland, and has been criticised for its part in the deforestation of the rainforest.

The company has wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to its new terminal in the jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans. The shipping terminal at Miritituba, deep in the Amazon in the Brazilian state of Pará, allows growers to load soybeans on barges, which are then sold around the world.

The Amazon terminal is run by Hidrovias do Brasil, a company that is owned in large part by Blackstone. Another Blackstone company, Pátria Investimentos, owns more than 50 per cent of Hidrovias, while Blackstone itself directly owns an additional 10 per cent stake. 

Hidrovias is involved in paving the highway 163 along with other development projects in the region which have additional indirect – though entirely predictable – consequences, as they spur side roads that make previously difficult-to-reach areas of the Amazon newly accessible for mining, logging, or further deforestation.

Image courtesy of Soohee Cho/The Intercept

Following backlash from The Intercept report which exposed the group’s involvement in the highway’s production and continued involvement with the area’s deforestation, Blackstone group released a statement calling the claims “mischaracterisations” that were “wrong and irresponsible.” 

While the news of Blackstone’s investment has been public since July, for whatever reason information gets circulated and recirculated online, the news of Oatly’s investor’s lack of ethical consideration made waves on Saturday after a thread of Tweets from user Less Waste Laura went viral.

“It’s frustrating when our limited choices are made harder by companies making poor investment choices that bring financial gain to people with no environmental or ethical standing in this world,” 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!”

Courtesy of BBC News

Food production is responsible for a quarter of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming, according to a study by Joseph Poore, of the University of Oxford. As shown in the graph above, oat milk is one of the most sustainable milk options available when taking into consideration all three of the production effects that impact the environment. It is particularly troubling for consumers choosing to buy oat milk for its minimal environmental impact that one of the leading oat milk brands in the UK is financially backed by a company directly involved in the destruction of the most important ecosystem on our planet.

It is particularly troubling for consumers choosing to buy oat milk for its minimal environmental impact that one of the leading oat milk brands in the UK is financially backed by a company directly involved in the destruction of the most important ecosystem on our planet.

Following the viral thread, which has since had thousands of retweets and comments, the brand’s UK account responded to Laura with a statement:

“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 really want to address climate change – we all need to contribute. This investment has now given the world’s leading player in private equity the opportunity 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.”

As Oatly stated, they believe the investment is a means to “move global capital in a sustainable direction.” But while this may be the case, Oatly approached Blackstone for the investment which is being used for the brand to expand, all while this information on rainforest deforestation had already been made public.

And while it may be inspiring to hear Oatly’s intention to change things from the inside out, many users commented that this also appears naive. Blackstone’s investment of $200 million is one of their smallest ever investments, and yet the firm has been quick to make use of the investment already, changing its Instagram bio to read: “Learn how we’re backing sustainable, plant-based alternatives to dairy with our investment in @oatly.”

Twitter users were quick to call-out the bio as greenwashing, a term used to describe corporations who deceptively market environmentally-conscious values to persuade consumers that their brand is ‘greener’ than it is. So as Blackstone continues to advertise its investment in Oatly as ‘supporting sustainable businesses’, Oatly’s 10% owned by Blackstone – with a projected profit of $400 million in 2021 – will earn Blackstone an estimated $40 million in its first year, all while the firm continues to aid rainforest destruction and back a political campaign that encourages the disbelief in our global climate crisis.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking that Blackstone is the true evil here, and Oatly is merely the victim of a larger capitalist system. Or that I’m trying to hold them responsible for the past work done by a 10% stakeholder. And of course, there’s also the argument that no money is truly clean, and therefore channelling corporate money into sustainable companies is an acceptable form of vigilante social-justice. 

But I counter this with a reminder – a global company estimated at $2 billion still has a choice in who its investors are. And furthermore, you too as a consumer have a choice in which brand you spend your money on. This is not about ‘cancelling’ one milk-alternative company without a second thought, but rather empowering ourselves as consumers that we have the power to hold big corporations accountable for their actions in the wake of a global climate crisis. So go on, make your voice heard and consider the wider impact of your consumer choices before taking another sip of your oat milk latte.

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