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Oat Milk, Climate Action and Brand Values

Updated: May 10, 2022

I’m an oat milk drinker and Oatly is currently my favourite oat milk brand. Up until very recently, I didn’t know anything about the brand except that they make oat milk that I like in packaging that I think is different. They also have a barista version that makes me totally feel like I’m having my favourite coffee shop latte when I make mine at home. You could say Oatly gives me a bit of the lifestyle I dream of.

One of the little phrases printed on any box of Oatly milk box is “wow no cow”. In fact the company is pretty intense in its advocacy for sustainable food production, specifically plant-based. In doing so it goes pretty hard against high carbon footprint dairy and meat agriculture. It sometimes also uses its packaging for messaging about this.

But just recently on social media Oatly has been called to question about it’s own sustainability moves when it posted that its head of sustainability was off to the UN conference on climate change (COP 26) via plane.

Nothing to hide

What I find interesting about Oatly is that even on their website in the quirky little videos that they use to tell users about the brand and the products, they don’t shy away from negative feedback. The brand has a way of communicating genuinely even if a bit over the top.

One video where various people sip on a glass of Oatly milk and comment on its taste ends with an older gentleman saying “Still tastes like S#*t”. Yet another asks people “what is Oatly?” and those people who don’t know or can’t readily describe it haven’t been edited out.

I suppose the point being made is that Oatly has nothing to hide, unlike many other food or beverage brands that go out of their way to look pristine in every promotional piece. It also alludes to beverage brands that include a number of obscure ingredients, many of which are not healthy to ingest especially cumulatively over time.

Holding the brand to a higher standard

The brand’s website says, “we believe we should grow stuff to eat instead of growing stuff to feed animals that we then eat.” This “shifting of consumption from animals to plants in order to help secure the longevity of our planet” is an anchor for the brand.

Oatly’s “sustainable brand” identity is almost visceral as it goes even further to state that, “the reckless pursuit of profits without any consideration for the wellbeing of the planet and the humans that live here should be considered a crime. Companies have as much responsibility as politicians do for building a society that every one of us living in this world can admire.”

Now that’s certainly holding the brand to a higher standard. Which brings me back to some of the responses to them sending their head of sustainability off to COP 26 by plane.

"Powered by Plants" - Messaging on one side of an Oatly Barista version oat milk in my kitchen now
Messaging on one side of an Oatly Barista version oat milk in my kitchen now

But does Oatly live up to the standard?

According to a 2020 article in the BBC’s Smart Guide to Climate Change, “Around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation. Together with other gases and the water vapour trails produced by aircraft, the industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming.”

So how dare a company that spouts so much about sustainability use such an unsustainable form of transport?

Again, consistently transparent about its shortcomings, Oatly was open about what was being done but also was well prepared for the “backlash” and maybe even invited it. Here’s an excerpt of the post caption,

“If putting our head of sustainability on a plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean for a climate meeting that doesn’t even have the food sector on its main agenda sounds anything but sustainable to you, we understand. Especially the “doesn’t even have the food sector on the main agenda” part. Food accounts for about 33% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions - something you might expect to qualify for a leading role in a climate conference, but apparently not. Which is exactly why we put Ashley on a long flight. Her agenda is all about food: not only will Ashley participate in various COP26 forums and talk about how companies can help transform agriculture as well as what actions governments must take to cut carbon emissions in the food sector, she will also meet with government officials to convince them that they can no longer ignore the food sector in climate plans.”

Seems pretty genius right? The response was overwhelmingly positive with many who commented asking more about shortages in the product in their home country than challenging Oatly on the choice of transport. Others congratulated them for sending Ashley and wished her good luck but they were challenged with responses like,

“And she’s FLYING there? That’s ridiculous. So much for trying to be a trustworthy company”

Oatly came back snarkily with,

“Yes, we should’ve hidden that fact like all those trustworthy companies”

Which then set off a bit of an exchange between users, one calling Oatly’s response passive aggressive and another noting the company now lived to serve its shareholders while yet another came to Oatly’s defence.

Holding true to brand values

Here’s an excerpt of what Oatly finally intervened to say,

“We believe there is no such thing as a perfect company but we believe that all companies can be transparent about our actions. If being honest makes us less trustworthy, then that’s too bad. We roll all our travel into our annual corporate carbon accounting which we are working to cut 70% by 2029, it makes us choose each company flight with care.”

Whether or not you think Oatly should’ve taken the time to plan a more environmentally friendly trip two things are certain; Oatly demonstrated consistency in its brand messaging and remained true to what is clearly a strong brand value, TRANSPARENCY.

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