Oatly is the world’s most famous oat milk brand to date and millions of plant-forward consumers are fans of their milks, yogurts, creams and ice cream products that are entirely made from plants. Even the biggest coffee chain in the world, Starbucks, has partnered with the brand in multiple countries to make sure customers get their oat milk lattes. In July, the company announced they had raised US$400 million in investment ahead of a possible IPO, including US$200 million (aka a 10% stake) from the Blackstone Group, a leading private equity fund with a sinister record on climate change, as well as celebrity investors such as Oprah, Natalie Portman, Jay Z’s Roc Nation and Starbucks’s Howard Schulz. The brand has always raised eyebrows thanks to their cheeky marketing campaigns, but today they are facing a distinctly more serious controversy.
Below, we share our exclusive interview with Oatly about what’s going on but before we get into the juicy details of what the vegan company has to say, here are some things you need to know.
It all kicked off on Twitter last week
Despite the funding announcement being made in July, the current controversy began on August 29 20202, thanks to a couple of social media posts including this one by climate activist Laura Young @LessWasteLaura detailing Blackstone’s environmental wrongs:
Blackstone & Oatly fans don’t share the same values
People are angry because Blackstone, largest alternative investment firm in the world, does not exactly align itself with many of Oatly’s fans and customers who often share more liberal views. This is because:
- Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman is a major donor for Donald Trump Super PACs and is one of the most vocal names on Wall Street in favour of the U.S. President’s re-election campaign.
- Blackstone is a partial owner of two Latin American companies – Hidrovas do Brazil and Pátria Investimento – both linked to Amazon deforestation, more links made here.
- Blackstone earns billions of dollars from its oil & gas investments, making it a profiteer of one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the planet driving the very climate crisis that Oatly is supposed to be fighting with its sustainable dairy alternatives.
Ex-fans are now staging a boycott on the brand and its products
Social media is now awash with calls on consumers and fans to boycott Oatly’s products and switch to other oat milk brands, and reposts of media headlines about Oatly getting “cancelled”, like the one below:
Oatly responded with an open letter defending the deal
Since the controversy struck, Oatly has responded with their own letter standing by their choice of investors, which you can read here and comparing their choice to selling vegan products at mass supermarkets. In the letter, the company said: “Blackstone is like the biggest supermarket of the private equity sector. We thought that if we could convince them that it’s as profitable (and in the long-term even more profitable) to invest in a sustainability company like Oatly, then all the other private equity firms of the world would look, listen and start to steer their collective worth of 4 trillion US dollars into green investments. Today, only a tiny fraction of all that venture capital ends up in sustainable investments.” Many former fans of Oatly were unimpressed and were quick to stand by their decision to switch to other oat milk brands out there.
They also posted THIS on social media
Responses have been mixed, with many expressing anger and disappointment. One Oatly consumer wrote on the brand’s Instagram post captioned ‘Read The Full Story’ that “I would buy about 5 cartons per week of Oatly. Very shocked to see a “vegan” brand going against its core principles that got you to the top in the first place. Seems I’m one of thousands who will no longer support you. I’m looking forward to trying some new brands!” This was echoed by another commenter, who said that “Whatever you say it is still not great to have 10% of your company owned by a Trump supporter. This is so disappointing.”
But others were more sanguine. “Thank you Oatly for you post. I think you’ve done the right decision to write it.Transparency is the key, so as a customer I’d love to know where these founds will go, and I hope they will be used to bring Oatly to Italy too,” wrote one person, while another lady added: “Perfect statement. Perfect explanation. Tough critical mass market, but you are doing a great job. Love Oatly 💛💛”
Oatly’s founder is onboard with the deal
We reached out to Rickard Öste, who along with his brother founded Oatly 26 years ago using research from Lund University in Malmö Sweden, though he is no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of the company. We asked him what he thought about the deal and the controversy around it and here’s what he told Green Queen:
“Oatly is in the process to go out on the stock market (IPO) in the near future. Blackstone, as well as some other new owners, are investing in Oatly in a so called “pre IPO”, preceeding the soon to be expected IPO. Total ownership by these players constitutes a very small part and they will have no influence on the vision and mission of Oatly. Obviously we have no way to decide who is buying the stocks once on [the] market. That is the way the free market economy works. Personally I think this is to be preferred above being acquired by one of the traditional multinationals, which is the destiny of many new food brands. Likely, those who shares our belief in Oatly, it’s messages and it’s market potential will be the buyer of the shares. Hopefully, many of our consumers will then be part owner our company! They are VERY WELCOME!”
Oatly has always believed it’s their duty to convince non-climate-aligned parties to care about the cause
When we interviewed Tobias Nordström in 2018, Oatly’s Chief Strategy Officer back in 2018, he told us: “We don’t see it just from a profitability angle- we are not only focused on the bottom line. We are focused on the sustainability and the nutrition profile of our brand. We need to be everywhere to make that change happen, we need to be global. If someone isn’t thinking from the ecological perspective, it’s our job to convince them to think about it.”
Speaking about the deal Oatly CEO Toni Petersson said: “It is my belief that capital has to turn green and do so for the right reasons…We chose to partner with Blackstone Growth because of their tremendous resources and unique reach.”
We asked Oatly some questions & here’s what they said
Below, we share responses by Åsa Ragnar, Oatly’s Chief Communication Officer, in response to Green Queen‘s questions about the controversy:
GQ: When the controversy erupted due to the social media video, the Oatly response was that the strategy was to “steer capital that would’ve otherwise gone into another commercial investment into sustainability instead, making their investments greener”.Why not share this back in July when the deal was announced, why only explain this once the controversy erupted?
AR: We have definitely not been hiding the fact Blackstone is one of the investors we took on board in July along with Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman, Roc Nation (Jay-Z), Howard Schultz, Orkila Capital and Rabo Capital Investments. In numerous interviews our CEO Toni Petersson talked about our responsibility as a sustainability company to do what we can to change the systems in which we operate and make them more sustainable. This includes our global food system, and it also includes the direction of global investment and the flow of global capital.
It might sound naïve, but we actually do believe that Oatly can make a difference in the world—that the impact of what we do can inspire others to make changes that lead to a global behavioral shift among consumers toward more sustainable food choices. That belief is what led us to print our CO2e emissions on our European packaging a year ago and call for the rest of the food industry to do the same. Many companies have followed, the German Parliament has agreed to discuss the topic, and Unilever announced that they will be labelling the carbon footprint on some 70,000 products.
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s private equity capital gets invested in sustainable companies. That needs to change. To drive systemic change, we need more of the world’s private equity to be invested in companies whose missions are striving for a better future for the planet.
GQ: There is a lot of money available to plant-based companies right now, given that the alt protein and plant-based sector is “having a moment”.Why not go with another PE fund, one without ties to Trump PACs and Amazon destruction? Why not reward impact funds/alt protein funds/green funds who are mission aligned? Why make anti-planet groups wealthier – they stand to get very wealthy off your IPO?
AR: We chose to partner with Blackstone, the leading player in private equity, because they believe in us and our plant-based mission and because their investment has steered a major stream of capital into our global sustainability efforts.
At the same time, their investment in Oatly will set an example and create a ripple effect in the financial community.We have the opportunity to show how companies built around sustainability are not only commercially viable, but also strategic investments for the future.
GQ: There are a lot of “Oatly is canceled” posts going around. Do you believe the critics and these posts will affect Oatly as a business in terms of sales and performance?
AR: It’s totally ok if there are those who don’t share our view on what is the right path to a sustainable world. Hopefully we’ll still continue to share the same end goal of a better more sustainable world. We see this as a big step forward for our sustainability work as it will enable us to grow and give more people the opportunity to switch to plant-based alternatives.
GQ: Other than the letter, if you were sitting face to face with your customers that feel disappointed, what would you say?
AR: We are still the Oatly you know and love! Absolutely nothing has changed about our mission or our values, nor will these things change moving forward. We’ll prove that to you!
Lead image designed by Green Queen Media, courtesy of Oatly & @kkot via Twitter.