Oatly is making me feel uncomfortable

Oatly makes it emphatically clear that you should be drinking Oatly and not (dairy) milk. The side of the carton invites you to join the post-milk generation, the website informs you that the milk lobby think you’re stupid and advertising suggests dad’s drinking milk have a bit of a problem. This confrontational, zealous anti-establishment communication is asking you to choose between good and bad …and it is working.

According to SPINS, US oat milk sales have increased by 345.2% in traditional retail channels in the last year and Oatly has established a first-mover advantage in what is becoming a crowded market.

As a dad with an established ‘milk in my coffee’ habit Oatly is making me uncomfortable. Oatly’s positioning as a milk designed for humans poses questions on the logic of consuming milk intended for baby cows. Most potently, however, Oatly lands their planet protecting competitive advantage loudly with a combative comparative claim. Their data suggests I’m making the wrong choice.

Equally uncomfortable is the absence of any alternative argument or competing choice from the dairy industry. Certainly the likes of Arla Foods are working towards a 30% cut in emissions from milk as part of their net-zero vision for 2050. This undoubtedly represents significant and positive industry-wide change, but it also means decades of climate (and so competitive) advantage for plant-based alternatives.

Volta Greentech are building their first seaweed factory with the aim of reducing 80% of methane emissions from cows.

Despite the scale of the challenge I would like to think there are farming entrepreneurs eager for faster change and seeing possibilities to connect innovation with improved practices. The likes of Cheesemaker Wyke Farm point to the potential for operational changes to reduce the carbon footprint of production and storage. In Sweden (the home of Oatly) the start-up Volta Greentech has developed a feed supplement that could dramatically remove the methane emissions that are core to dairy’s climate problem. In France Danone aims to source 100% of ingredients produced from regenerative agriculture by 2025. In the Netherlands Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have developed options for measuring the CO2 that farmers are able to sequester into their soil. Collectively these developments suggest potential for a positive climate contribution and so a credible challenge to the likes of Oatly.

On behalf of dads with a milk problem I would ask for some real options to support my behaviour. When pressed to explain I would like to point to my carton of locally-sourced, organic milk and then discuss the data on how its carbon impact makes it a positive choice for the planet.

Footnote: Since publishing this article in 2021 the UK ASA have banned the claim as it was based on a single Oatly product. I suspect this will challenge the specifics of Oatly’s future claims but not the competitive and confrontational direction…

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