The Oatly Controversy, Explained

The Swedish oat milk brand Oatly has undeniably revolutionized non-dairy milk, with its presence in the United States expanding from just 10 coffee shops in 2017 to 3,500 in 2019, as well as a home product line that now includes flavored milks, lattes, and ice cream. Before the company made improvements to its American supply chain, Oatly was in such ravenous demand that at one point, a single carton was going for $25 on Amazon. Despite all of that, some fans on social media are now calling for an Oatly boycott.

One of Oatly's touted benefits is sustainability—especially when its manufacturing process is compared to other non-dairy options like almond milk, which uses huge amounts of water in drought-ridden parts of California. Just this month, SELF concluded that the "oat milk craze isn't going anywhere," with the affordability, sustainability, and ease of growing oats adding to the product's appeal. In mid July, however, Oatly earned a valuation of $2 billion after a $200 million investment from Blackstone Growth, per Bloomberg. Blackstone's major investment alongside its alleged ties to deforestation in the Amazon are now at the center of the current controversy.

Climate activist and speaker Laura Young, also known as Less Waste Laura, kicked the conversation off on a popular Instagram post this week. "I am pretty late to this news flash, but earlier this year @oatly—the extremely popular, delicious, and environmentally conscious oat-based milk brand, has been invested in by the Blackstone Group," Young wrote to her 39,000 followers. "This means that they are part owned by a global investment group who have some pretty devastating work across the world." That post has earned over 11,800 likes as of this writing.

As Young wrote in the caption, Blackstone has investments in Hidrovias do Brazil and Pátria Investimentos, two firms that "are directly contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest." Though she supports oat milk as "one of the biggest solutions to reducing food carbon emissions," Young wrote that she doesn't want her money going "to the destruction of the planet, and putting people's lives and land at risk just so that I can have a creamy coffee in the morning!"

Per a report from the Intercept last August, the Brazilian firms Young mentioned "are significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest," as they have taken control of land, deforested it, and helped build a "controversial" highway "to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans." Deforestation has made the Amazon more susceptible to wildfires, which have increased this year according to a recent report from NBC. (In response to the Intercept's report, Blackstone issued a statement disputing these allegations and emphasizing its "commitment to sustainability.")

The conversation is building on Twitter, where fans are sharing their disappointment with the brand. As Oatly states on its website, the company's guiding principles include delivering "products that have maximum nutritional value and minimal environmental impact" and producing "the most sustainable, responsible products on the market."

Oatly is now defending itself against complaints and memes over its ties to Blackstone. "It's actually all about sustainability opportunities—this investment will help us drive the plant-based movement further, and steer global capital in a more sustainable direction," the Oatly account posted today. "We believe this is necessary in order to see real change." In a separate post, Oatly wrote: "[O]ur company is definitely not destroying forests. We're here to facilitate the global shift toward plant-based foods and don’t support any business practices that come at the expense of the environment."

While Oatly's intentions may be good, the situation highlights the challenges in "ethical" and conscious shopping. Oat milk has benefits compared to other non-dairy options, including a need for less water and less herbicide than almond or soy milk, but its large-scale production can still have problems. As Sian Conway, a self-described "ethical marketing strategist" and founder of Ethical Hour, wrote in a tweet, the situation reveals flaws in the food system: "Sustainable brands can't go mainstream & create widespread change without investment. Investment comes at a cost to the environment that means 'conscious consumers' can't shop their values even when they try."

Oatly's huge popularity in the United States has helped spur the rise of new oat milk products, including from competitors like Chobani. "Oat milk sales have been up by 289% year-over-year from March to June," Business Insider reported last month using data provided by Nielsen. Still, if you can't figure out a brand to support, oat milk is easy to make at home, as Young and other social media users have pointed out. All it takes is water and oats.

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