Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Over the past several weeks, social media has taken another dive into the realms of cancel culture, this time with a new target: Oatly. Founded in the 1990s, Oatly is a vegan food brand producing dairy-alternative products using oats. As plant-based eating has accelerated over the past several years, Oatly has come to be widely considered as the most sustainable alternative to dairy, boasting its low carbon footprint, low water usage and environmentally conscious waste.

Until recently, Oatly was deemed to be the perfect alternative to dairy milk by its environmentally driven consumers. However, now valued at $2 billion, Oatly have sold 30% of its shares to China Resources Holding Company and a further 10% to private equity firm, Blackstone: a decision that has been met with severe backlash. 

For a company focused on sustainability and climate justice, these alliances seem incredibly unnatural and unethical. Blackstone have previously invested in projects linked to deforestation in Brazil and the company’s CEO is a donor to the Trump administration. People who buy Oatly products are most often doing so in order to positively impact the environment with their purchases. However, now in doing so they are by proxy contributing to companies that have a negative impact both environmentally and socially. Their anger is understandable. 

Yet this argument can by no means be considered black and white, and to condemn Oatly without appreciating the nuance to this conversation is incredibly unfair and, arguably, quite hypocritical. Instead of this instant vilification we must scrutinize our own choices surrounding environmental and climate justice. Why are we boycotting Oatly? Yes, their choices of investors are questionable, but do we ask that every company that we consume from only chooses investors that align with their views and share the same values? For most of us, the answer is no. In boycotting Oatly, we are holding sustainable businesses to higher standards than other companies, which will only damage the sustainability sector rather than help to grow it. The intentions of boycotting Oatly are good, but they may not be entirely justified. 

Companies like Oatly which have big environmental goals are aiming to disrupt the market in order to make a big impact on consumer habits. In order to make such an impact, massive capital is needed and in our society such capital can often only be found in businesses that do not necessarily contribute to environmental justice. Although an alliance with Blackstone seems to be the antithesis to everything that Oatly stands for, investments like this re-direct capital into the sustainability sector which, long-term, could have the most impact on the future of environmental justice. 

If we condemn sustainable brands for using ‘big-money’ to expand themselves, we risk stunting their growth completely and therefore making it impossible for these businesses to disrupt the market and create a more sustainably driven consumer society. Environmental responsibility is a delicate line to walk and an easy finger to point, but it is not fair to vilify those who continue to buy Oatly products or point the finger of hypocrisy of those who do not. What is most important here is that we abandon our quest for moral superiority in sustainable consuming and instead make individual decisions about the environmental responsibility that we are willing to hold ourselves accountable for.