Oat milk giant Oatly “cancelled” amid deforestation-linked investor controversy

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Swedish oat-based food producer Oatly has become the latest brand to face “cancellation” on Twitter, after it emerged the company had received a $200m investment from the Trump-supporting private equity firm Blackstone, who have been linked with deforestation in the Amazon. 

Many Oatly customers from all over the world took to Twitter to announce that they would be boycotting the brand, following a tweet written by climate activist Laura Young which accused Hidrovias do Brazil and Pátria Investimento, both companies co-owned by Blackstone, of “directly contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.”

https://twitter.com/LessWasteLaura/status/1299681135757271040

In recent years, Oatly has become one of the most popular plant-based milk brands on the market.

The issue of Blackstone’s investment is particularly contentious because Oatly claims to pride itself on sustainability and an ethical approach to business.

The first line of the company description on its website reads:

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.

Taking to Twitter to defend Blackstone’s investment, Oatly said:

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.

But many customers have questioned how Oatly can claim Blackstone “believes in [its] mission” whilst continuing to invest in companies and people that “don’t fit with what [the brand] stands for.”

Blackstone’s owner, Stephen Schwarzman, is a major Republican-party donor and has served as chairman of President Trump’s strategic and policy forum, a team of corporate executives assembled to advise on job creation and the economy.

Aja Barber tweeted: “I just want to know how you @OatlyUK a company worth $400 million in profits will get @blackstone to stop investing their 10% ($40 million) from you into Amazon deforestation and Trump re-electing. Both of which are ultimately much worse for the planet.”

Allegations of Blackstone’s links to deforestation primarily centre around Hidrovias do Brazil’s and Pátria Investimento’s ties to the BR-163, a road which facilitates the export of grains and soybeans to a Hidrovas-run shipping terminal.

A report written by Ryan Grim in The Intercept suggests that both companies are “significantly responsible for the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest”:

The companies have wrested control of land, deforested it, and helped build a controversial highway to their new terminal in the one-time jungle, all to facilitate the cultivation and export of grain and soybeans.

Developing the roadway itself causes deforestation, but, more importantly, it helps make possible the broader transformation of the Amazon from jungle to farmland.

Blackstone has strongly refuted these allegations, claiming that any accusations its companies have contributed to deforestation are “erroneous, blatantly wrong and irresponsible”:

Hidrovias does not own, control or have any interest — direct or indirect — in the road in question (BR-163).  This road has been operated by the Brazilian government since 1976. The company did not build this highway, nor are they paving it.

Last year, Oatly’s sales doubled to about $200m. It expects to have similar growth this year and plans to use Blackstone’s investment to expand the distribution of its oat-based yogurt, spreads, on-the-go drinks and ice cream.

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