Thursday, February 22, 2024

Big Oat Versus Big Dairy: The Milk War Rages On


Oatly is paying it forward to the dairy industry — there’s only one minor caveat.

The milk industry has a nasty spill to mop up on the dairy aisle. Last month, Big Dairy enlisted the help of White Lotus star Aubrey Plaza to peddle a fake nut milk brand, dubbed ‘Wood Milk,’ in a campaign aimed at mocking the plant-based milk sector. She gave a valiant effort, donning the Got Milk campaign’s signature milk mustache and proudly proclaiming that “only real milk is real.” Needless to say, the advert backfired and her fans turned sour, causing her to disable the comment section on her now-controversial, sponsored Instagram post.

“Aubrey, no!” screamed Jenny Stojkovic, founder of Vegan Women Summit, in a video posted on TiKTok. “Why on Earth are you getting in bed with ‘Got Milk?’ Ugh, nobody likes milk—like, literally nobody.”


This is the worst brand collab of all time @drinkwoodmilk. Why you taking money from @gotmilk Aubrey? How much did they pay? 😝 #greenscreenvideo #greenscreen #fyp #plantbased #climate #climatechange #dairyfree @plantbasednews

♬ original sound – jennystojkovic

Thankfully, Swedish food company Oatly has come to Big Dairy’s rescue. It’s giving the industry a chance to redeem itself by offering cow milk companies free advertising space — paid in full by Oatly. The billboards will go up in New York’s Times Square and on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles on May 8. Oatly’s ad will also hit the NY Times, LA Times, and Washington Post on May 7.

“We bought two billboards to tell you we’ve begun including climate footprint numbers on our products,” the first billboard reads. Oatly’s ad showcases the brand’s carbon footprint, noting that it takes 0.62 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent to produce one bottle of its oat milk.

The second billboard encourages the dairy industry to do the same. “And we’re donating this one to the dairy industry so they can tell you their climate footprint numbers too,” it reads.

That’s right, Oatly wants to support the dairy industry. There’s just one condition.

Got sustainable milk?

Obtaining the free ad space is easy — all a dairy company has to do is answer a few questions (a little over 60, to be exact, plus four short essays) about its carbon footprint.

Questions — the full list of which can be found on Oatly’s website — include: What methods did you use to calculate your product’s carbon footprint? Does it include emissions from carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and/or sulfur hexafluoride? What other greenhouse gases does your climate footprint unit include? And the short essays include a writing prompt on why the company believes product climate transparency is important.

In regard to the ads, Oatly’s overall goal is to hold the dairy industry accountable for its environmental impact. The sector committed to achieving greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050 back in 2020, setting a rather ambitious goal of going carbon neutral, optimizing water usage, and improving water quality.

Aubrey Plaza for wood milk
Aubrey Plaza stars in a new “Got Milk” campaign taking aim at the plant-based dairy industry. | Courtesy Wood Milk

“With the entire dairy community at the table — from farmers and cooperatives to processors, household brands, and retailers — we’re leveraging U.S. dairy’s innovation, diversity, and scale to drive continued environmental progress and create a more sustainable planet for future generations,” Mike Haddad, former chairman of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, said at the time.

But the industry has a long way to go if it has any hope of doing better for the planet. Compared to its plant-based counterparts, dairy milk generates three times as much greenhouse gas emissions. The dairy industry also requires ten times as much land and two to twenty times more fresh water.

“Roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system. And about half of the food sector’s emissions come from livestock, or the animal-based sector,” Julie Kunen, Director of Sustainability, Oatly North America, told Ethos. “The greatest impact we can have as a company is to convert dairy users into Oatly consumers.”

Sustainably oat-based

Founded in 1994, Oatly is certainly the OG as far as oat milk is concerned. And with nearly three decades of frothy oat milk-making experience under its belt, the company has made great strides in relation to its sustainability commitments, including launching climate labels on some of its products.

Of course, progress is never linear and Oatly’s strides haven’t been met without their own hiccups. In 2020, the brand received substantial blowback from consumers after it was revealed that Blackstone Group — a private investment firm notorious for its backing of companies reportedly linked to illegal child labor and deforestation, among others — had bought a ten percent stake in the company for $200 million.

dairy cows
Oatly wants to hold the dairy industry accountable for its environmental impact. | Photo by Veronica White on Unsplash

“Getting a company like Blackstone to invest in us is something we have been working on to create maximum change to benefit the planet,” the company explained in a statement. “From a sustainability perspective, we are convinced that helping shift the focus of massive capital towards sustainable approaches is potentially the single most important thing we can do for the planet in the long-term.”

Early last year, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority banned several of Oatly’s ads — which also compared the carbon footprint of its oat milk to dairy milk — over ‘misleading’ environmental claims following more than 100 complaints.

“It’s clear that we could have been more specific in the way we described some of the scientific data,” Oatly’s spokesman, Tim Knight, said at the time.

Fast forward to today, and Oatly’s new climate footprint labels, which can be found on select U.S. products, including its Oatgurt, appear to prioritize transparency.

“Earlier this year, Oatly introduced climate footprint labeling for our products in North America in the most transparent and complete way we think is currently possible, in kg of CO2e per kg of packaged food product,” Kunen told Ethos.

Oatly ads
Oatly’s new climate footprint labels prioritize transparency. | Courtesy Oatly

She added that, unlike nutrition labels, there currently isn’t a mandated methodology for climate impact labeling. “Having access to a product’s climate footprint is great, but it’s hard to understand what it really means in isolation,” she said. “So, Oatly also called upon our peers to take notice and adopt similar practices of their own — and it’s working.”

Overall, Oatly hopes its new campaign will inspire the industry at large to make actionable changes for the planet. “We’re calling upon our larger industry to take part in this effort — our latest call to action being this campaign advocating for transparency around the impact cow’s dairy products have on the planet so consumers can make these more informed purchasing choices,” Kunen said.

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