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Oatly is defending itself after selling stake to Trump donor Schwarzman's Blackstone Group

Daniel Roberts
·5 mins read
Spain, Barcelona, Trambaix, light rail public transportation. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
An ad for vegan milk Oatly covers a Trambaix light rail train in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In July, the red-hot vegan milk brand Oatly sold a 10% stake for $200 million to a group of investors led by Blackstone Growth and including Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman, Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz. The investment valued privately-held Oatly at $2 billion — unicorn status. The Swedish brand is reportedly eyeing an imminent IPO.

But now Oatly lovers have learned more about Blackstone Group, and they aren’t happy. Fans are threatening boycotts on social media. The situation is not unlike what happened to Goya Foods in July after its CEO called Trump an “incredible builder” and said America is “blessed” to have him.

Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman has donated $3.7 million to President Trump’s reelection efforts; Businessweek writes that he is “singlehandedly propping up Trump’s Wall Street fundraising” and that without Schwarzman, donations to Trump from people associated with the top 31 banks and investment firms would be down 69% from 2016. (A spokesperson for Blackstone notes that other Blackstone executives, including COO Jonathan Gray, have donated to Joe Biden.)

Blackstone has also come under political fire over the past couple years for something unrelated to Trump: its minority ownership of Hidrovias, a Brazilian company accused of contributing to the destruction of Amazon rainforest through its business paving a highway in Brazil used to transport soy illegally grown on deforested land. (In 2019, The Intercept called Schwarzman the “driving force behind Amazon deforestation.”) Blackstone, in a “setting the record straight” blog post last year, countered that Hidrovias was “falsely accused of being responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon through the development of an industrial road... 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.” A spokesperson for Blackstone reiterates that the Hidrovias claims are “wholly fabricated.”

Blackstone Group CEO and co-founder Steve Schwarzman speaks during an interactive session with students at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) on March 04, 2020 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Blackstone Group CEO and co-founder Steve Schwarzman speaks during an interactive session with students at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) on March 04, 2020 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Oatly fanatics are not convinced. In Twitter threads and Instagram comments, they are pushing Oatly for an explanation. Last week Laura Young, a climate activist, tweeted she “will from now on be moving my own purchases elsewhere” after she discovered news of the Blackstone deal. Her thread was widely amplified on social media by environmentalists and people in the coffee industry.

On July 24, Oatly publicly addressed the backlash by responding to a Twitter user who asked, “Do you support Trump?” The brand said, “We've recently received an investment from Blackstone and other private equity firms which will help us expand our sustainable mission and create more plant-based products. We understand that partnering with Blackstone is an unexpected choice, however through this partnership we are able to get the leading player in private equity to invest in sustainability and to align their goals and values with our own.”

Now Oatly is continuing to defend itself on Instagram.

In new comments posted on Wednesday in response to a barista in Seattle, Oatly wrote a lengthy defense of the Blackstone deal that said, in part: “We're happy to discuss this and really appreciate folks wanting to have a dialogue about our decision here! To offer some background on why we chose to accept investment from Blackstone – as a sustainability company, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to change the systems in which we operate to make them more sustainable moving forward... As a company with a genuine sustainability mission, we don't have time to stay small. We need to expand our operations so we can expand our impact.”

The brand went further by responding to a commenter who retorted, “I think the statement that ‘absolutely nothing has changed about our mission or values’ is a bit misleading... You now have a responsibility to actively work against the very investment you took, I believe this is a significant change in values.”

Oatly replied: “We aren’t able to control what our investors do with future profits, but we can influence them to choose sustainable investments by working with them and showing them through our own success that sustainable investments are attractive investments and can be even better for business than traditional investments. We can show them that a company can do good for the planet and its people while also doing well for its investors... Regarding our mission and values, it’s true that nothing has changed... Our decision to work with one of the world’s largest private equity firms was made with this mission and these values absolutely top-of-mind.”

For coffee industry workers and Oatly fans, forgiveness might be a long time coming.

“Oatly has been widely adopted as the standard for oat milk in our industry, so folks are definitely concerned,” says Ian Bailey of Vivid Coffee, a roaster in Burlington, Vt. “People have brought up the Trump connection, and the coffee community cares deeply about the problematic policies of the current administration, but it seems like most are more concerned with the financial ties to Blackstone for the deforestation issue.”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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