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TO OATLY, OR NOT TO OATLY

8 September 2020

The headline? We’re sticking with Oatly. Here’s why (it’s a long read, but hopefully interesting)

 

We want to be transparent about what we do, why we do it, what we’re proud of as a business, and what we still need to improve upon (and what isn’t perfect but can’t be improved upon or changed due to external factors). This Oatly debate has prodded us into doing a broad audit of our suppliers and products we use and our own practices too to see if there are any other ethical ‘red flags’ and if we can improve any aspect of our business further.

WHY PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES ARE BOYCOTTING OATLY

There is a lot of news and information on this so we’re not going to repeat it at length (have a read of the guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/…/oatly-vegan-milk-sale-blackst…, and Oatly’s statement https://www.oatly.com/int/climate-and-capital). 

As a summary: Oatly, the Swedish company that produces the Oatly Barista we use in our m*lky drinks, and has promoted itself as an ethical company with slogans such as ‘people over profits’ has accepted a 10% investment of $150 million from Blackstone (and also a $200 million Green Deal investment). Blackstone is a huge financial company that has been accused of causing deforestation and road building in the Amazon, with the CEO donating heavily to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, among other concerning investments.

WHY WE USE OATLY BARISTA IN THE FIRST PLACE

For those of you who don’t know our story or know the product Oatly Barista…

We had our first Oatly flat white in one of our favourite coffee shops in London (sorry can’t remember exactly which one it was). We thought it was the best coffee we’d ever tasted (which was also due to the excellent beans, roasting and extraction of the shot but was also the m*lk). The memory stuck with us and when we started planning The Wildcat about a year later we knew what brand to use to make delicious plant-based m*lky coffees that would blow dairy out of the water.

 

Our primary goal as a business, above environmental considerations (though usually they go hand in hand), is to help stop the unnecessary exploitation of sentient beings, whether a pig, a chicken, a fish, a lamb, a honey bee or a dairy cow. If you are unaware of the horrific cruelty endemic in the dairy industry, NO MATTER THE FARM, please get in touch, we’d love to have a chat about it. There is nothing redeeming about the dairy industry, and it needs to end. To help stop this exploitation, we aim to provide the best food and drink we possibly can that appeals to all people including those who are skeptical of vegan food and drink. We really value every opportunity to inspire customers to become vegan or take steps towards this. 

Because of where we are located and the population size, the vast majority of our customers are dairy drinkers. This means when they come to us, they may have never had a non-dairy latte before (or may have had a terrible one), and it’s our job to convince them that they will absolutely rave about their coffee or hot chocolate. And they do. 

Oatly Barista, and only Oatly Barista, gives us the confidence to GUARANTEE that the customer will love their m*lky drink no matter their diet. We’ve tried most other plant ‘milks’ (at least 15 products, probably more) and there is currently nothing out there that comes even close. Remove Barista from our m*lky drinks, and we loose that opportunity to give a staunch ‘carnivore’ a positive or maybe even their first vegan experience, and potentially a lifelong shift for that customer away from dairy (by the way, we've heard from many customers that this is actually the case which is fantastic feedback!) We’ve even had dairy farmers in the cafe saying ‘we don’t agree with what you are doing, but it was very nice’.

 

PRIORITISING OUR GOALS

Oatly’s acceptance of this investment is a disappointment and doesn’t sit easily with us since we try to avoid companies that either invest in or conduct activities that do not align with our values.

However, after the initial anger, disappointment and shock, we have thought more deeply about it…

 

We have a vision of a world where hunger, dietary-related diseases, use of animals as commodities, soil depletion, water pollution and decimation of habitats and insect populations are eradicated and that people nourish themselves, their communities and the biosphere through the food and drink that they consume.

We are a long way from actualising this vision and it is going to take time. To help progress towards this vision we have to sometimes compromise and chose the most compassionate and consistent option even though it isn’t perfect and may even be far from it. 

If a smaller, more local company made oat m*lk of the same calibre as Oatly Barista, we would love to switch to them, but that doesn’t exist at this time. If our customers all enjoyed teas and black coffee as much as we do, it wouldn’t be such a big shift to use a different m*lk, but that isn't the case either. 

 

At the moment, our priority is reducing the unnecessary suffering and exploitation of animals. The cows don’t care what m*lk we are drinking as long as it isn’t theirs which is meant for their calves. So until veganism is the norm or a product that is just as tasty and has better ethics exists, we’re sticking with Oatly because it is crucial in helping us to progress towards a more compassionate world and ultimately achieving our vision.

DOES OATLY’S DECISION WARRANT THE RESPONSE IT HAS RECEIVED?

We’re not sure that it does, for a few reasons…

 

1) Limited Investment Opportunities: Oatly claims that in accepting the investment it is hoping to help steer traditionally unethical investors towards a greener future. Even if you think this is ‘greenwashing’ marketing rubbish, isn’t it better that more people and planet-focused companies are expanding than ones that aren’t? As an alternative, are there enough ethically-focused funders to support good products scaling up? If not, are we rejecting all aspects of scaling up and globalisation and if so, are we applying that to all aspects of our lives or just some products? 

We can’t answer all these questions, but are wondering for the people who want Oatly and are frustrated if they can’t get it (as was the case in the UK about a year and a half ago), how do they suggest Oatly satisfy the consumers (i.e. grow bigger) when operating within a global financial system rife with questionable investors and with few ‘ethical’ ones? There doesn’t seem to be an easy, clear answer.

 

2) Dairy vs Plant M*lk: Some coffee shops and grocery suppliers have announced that they are ditching Oatly for good, whilst still selling/serving meat and dairy products. But meat and dairy are some of the most destructive and exploitative products money can buy, both from a cruelty perspective and an environmental one.

 

The irony of this is that many are citing Blackstone's involvement in funding deforestation and roadbuilding in the Amazon to extract soy as a big reason to boycott Oatly, but where do you think that soy is going? Over 90% of Brazilian soy goes straight to the global livestock industry, including UK dairy cows. Can you boycott Oatly citing concern for rainforest destruction and still serve/sell/drink dairy?

Cafes ditching Oatly seems like making a gesture of factoring ethics into their decisions, but ignoring the big, scary, uncomfortable decision to ditch dairy, which is a huge part of their business. Similarly, grocers have thousands of products and can absorb the discontinuing of one relatively easily. Are they picking ‘easy wins’ and things in the media rather than applying consistent scrutiny across their business? 

 

For more info on environmental damage of animal agriculture, please see:

UN report, Livestock's Long Shadow. 2006 (or many other resources…)

3) Overall Ethical Rating: According to ethicalconsumer.org, a well respected and researched source on products and companies, Oatly has only gone down a small amount because of the investment (presumably partly because Blackstone’s ownership is 10% and not a larger share of the company). Oatly still scores 13 out of 20 (Rude Health scores 13.5, Alpro scores 5, top score was 17 https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/…/shop…/vegan-non-dairy-milk). One newspaper article that criticised Oatly for the investment suggested Alpro as one alternative but does that seem like a good choice when it scores so low and Oatly much higher?

 

4) Consumer Inconsistency: Similarly, we’ve seen a number of consumers committing to ditching Oatly. If those consumers genuinely live by their values of supporting fully ethical companies then that is fantastic and we support their choice to remove Oatly from their cupboards/fridge. However, we’ve seen some consumers who are boycotting Oatly, also praise other companies for starting to offer new vegan products (e.g. Uniliver, McDonalds, KFC) even though these companies are known for being ethically questionable. Because Oatly has promoted itself as an ethical company, should we hold them to much higher, possibly unachievable, ethical standards that we do not apply to other companies? Even with the investment, isn’t Oatly still a better choice of brand than many others that have no ethics at their core and are only starting to offer vegan products because of market changes not because they believe in them?

 

Broadening this point beyond food/drink, aren’t we all being somewhat hypocritical whether businesses or individuals? Are the cafes and shops that are boycotting Oatly squeaky clean ethically across the board (e.g. their bank, their pension fund, their energy provider etc.)? (If they are, that is amazing but so far we have found it challenging for some operations such as pensions; even the ‘ethical’ ones score terribly on ethicalconsumer.org). If we applied a rigorous ethical standard to all our actions, would we be using Facebook or Instagram to share these thoughts? Would we use supermarkets? Amazon? Even if you try to avoid these things for the most part, and if you try to have ethical banking and energy etc., it feels impossible to fully achieve living by good values of compassion and care for people, animals and planet. We are all living in a world controlled by systems, structures and the elite, that make it very hard to ‘do the right thing’ across the board. We have to make the best decisions we can in line with our values, but does that necessarily include shunning Oatly?

 

IN CONCLUSION

We did consider boycotting Oatly; if ethically we thought it was the right thing to do even if it could have been highly damaging to the business; we would have taken that risk. But considering the world we live in, the number of animals and ecosystems being destroyed for the meat and dairy industries and the lack of comparable alternatives, for the time being, it is best for us to keep using Oatly Barista to help convince consumers to ditch dairy. We still hold true to our bold, beautiful vision (even if it is still a long way off) and will continue to strive to achieve it. 

If you don’t agree with us and do want to boycott Oatly then we will always have a range of m*lk alternatives should you want to visit The Wildcat for a tasty cup of coffee (which can also be served black of course).