The dairy industry is infamous for being a serious disaster. The revolt against an entire industry is pretty justified; the malpractices - including the mistreatment of animals and use of antibiotics/hormones to produce more milk - is seriously disappointing. The entire process is also extremely taxing on the planet’s resources. By default, plant-based milk tends to be better for the planet on all terms including climate, land, and water use. However, plant milks can also have a dark side like any mass-produced crop these days. Indeed, the real challenge which I face (as a person trying to ditch dairy), remains in finding a delicious and convincing alternative to milk that also manages to be sustainable in the production process.
Here comes Oatly, a Swedish oat milk company creating plant-based and sustainable food products; it has been a key player in the rise of alternative milk consumption worldwide. While famously known for their oat milk, Oatly ventured into ice-creams in 2019 and launched several flavors for $4.99 each. Overall, Oatly maintains an environmentally virtuous image which remains grounded in their innovative ethos, but they still have quite a few steps to accomplish before becoming fully sustainable - including more transparency on labour practices and the people involved in production.
Oats are the main ingredient of this ice cream. The oats are sourced from Sweden and Finland by a supplier called Lantmannen Cerealia. Of all the plants turned into milk, oats have the least water use – making this a great and sustainable ingredient. In terms of figures, to produce one pound of oats, it takes 1/6th the amount of water and resources needed to produce one pound of almonds. The ice cream also contains several oils (such as rapeseed and coconut), alongside stabilizers, fats, and gums, which are typical for texture purposes. A real potential concern in this ingredient list is rapeseed oil, also known as canola oil. The canola plants are often GMO’d rapeseed plants, and while the health benefits of trans fats aren’t great, it is great that Oatly uses non-GMO rapeseed oil produced in North America and the Netherlands. However, this highly processed ingredient (even non-GMO’d) isn’t great for your health – especially when considering alternatives such as cold-pressed avocado oil or even removing the use of oil entirely. Surprisingly, compared to their other products which use plastic or paper, Oatly uses Sentinel Evergreen Packaging for all their pint-sized frozen desserts. Sentinel utilizes a coating which is sugarcane-based polyethylene to make the paperboard cups – making it renewable and plant-based.
Oatly takes a different approach compared to other companies which typically utilize a mechanical oat breakdown process that involves blending and straining. The production starts with combining whole oat kernels with water and a natural enzyme blend. The enzyme breaks the oats down into a liquid, which is then strained to remove any insoluble fiber. In this process, a soluble fiber called beta-glucan is left (as it is healthy for you)! The production process itself is relatively sustainable as it involves less energy compared to the mechanical process, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions significantly. One issue that could potentially arise is the fact that oats tend to be contaminated with chemical fertilizers like glyphosate right before harvest – however, Oatly is committed to being glyphosate-residue free. Oatly has also addressed production waste by repurposing 100% of leftover oat fibers into animal feed or biogas, which is an amazing achievement.
I was surprised to see that their website has a dedicated section on where their ice-cream ingredients come from and who each supplier is — this shows transparency for who Oatly works with. Most of the ingredients are sourced within Europe, but there are a couple of them beyond the continent - including coconut oil from the Philippines/Indonesia and stabilizers from India. These contribute to high transport-related emissions, with over 52% of their total emissions coming from distribution to Asia. The transport emissions had increased Oatly’s climate impact by 79% in 2020. Oatly has tried to address these emissions by introducing a fleet of electric trucks and more production sites in Asia, which is good news. Overall, most of the information on Oatly’s approach towards more sustainable production is promising, but there isn’t much on the people involved (other than the fact that Oatly introduced a pilot program to test market-opportunities for Midwest farmers in the US). There should be far more transparency regarding their labour practices.
Oatly is a Swedish-based brand focusing on dairy alternatives by producing products from oats. They are known for their quirky yet innovative tone of voice, which is reflected throughout their website - it makes it a bit easier for new consumers to understand all the jargon involved in producing plant-based milks. Their sustainability report also reflects this voice, it is informative with lots of illustrations and statistics, which makes it super enjoyable to read! One of my favorite parts of the report is the “Lessons Learnt” section, where they hold themselves accountable through discussing their oversights, acknowledge the importance of where they source ingredients from, and the trade-offs between production and transportation. I also like the gender diversity present in Oatly – with an almost perfect balance of 48% men and 52% women in 2020.
However, one of my biggest concerns with Oatly is their recent partnership with a controversial private investor called Blackstone – this was the reason for lowering their rating. Blackstone has had its fair share of controversies, but the most notorious one is the fact that Blackstone’s investments have been linked with the ongoing destruction activities in the Amazon. These investments have led to deforestation, violation of indigenous land rights through restricted control, and has even destroyed important ecosystems. In response to this, Oatly mentioned that the reasoning involved in turning to Blackstone as an investor was to invoke a conversation about sustainable funding and green investments, and, in turn, help shift the focus of massive capital towards sustainable approaches. While I can’t help but feel disappointed that this partnership makes me question Oatly’s commitment to the environment, I really hope that Oatly will continue its sustainable-focused image even through misaligned investor relations. Hence, I give them the benefit of doubt if they can manage to create a step forward for sustainable investments.