Do companies have as much responsibility as politicians to build societies the rest of the world can admire?

Oatly’s full-page ad in The Observor colour supplement back in August 2016 attracted my attention instantly. As it was presumably intended to do; after all, an ad like that doesn’t come cheap.

Oatly advertisement

On the one hand, it’s reassuring to see a large company state that: “Companies have as much responsibility as politicians for building a society that the rest of the world can admire”. And, helpfully, Oatly specify within the ad exactly what they mean by this statement: “The reckless pursuit of profits without any consideration of the wellbeing of the planet and the humans that live here should be considered a crime”.

Fine sentiments! But I’m somewhat cynical by nature, so I immediately turned to the Ethical Consumer ratings to see how Oatly perform in Ethical Consumer’s shopping guide to soya and non-diary milk. And what I found was that in a review of 21 companies Oatley came joint 9th, with a rating of 14.5 out of a maximum 20. Which wasn’t quite the outstanding endorsement of social and environmental performance I’d anticipated given the claims made in The Observor ad.

So I turned to the details of the Ethical Consumer rating to find out more. It seemed that Ethical Consumer had given the worst ratings for both environmental reporting and supply chain management due to Oatly’s failure to respond to requests for information.

Worst rating for environmental reporting
————————————————————————
Oatly AB did not respond to a request from Ethical Consumer for information regarding how the company managed its environmental impacts when contacted by Ethical Consumer in June 2015. The company’s website, www.oatly.co.uk, stated that it only used Swedish oats, and that its non-organic products bore the Svenskt Sigill mark, which meant that the use of chemicals in their cultivation was limited. Oatly AB had a turnover of above £8 million, the threshold above which Ethical Consumer expected to see adequate environmental policies in place. Oatly therefore received a worst rating for environmental reporting.

Worst Ethical Consumer rating for supply chain management
————————————————————————
Oatly AB did not respond to a request from Ethical Consumer for information regarding how the company managed its supply chain when contacted by Ethical Consumer in July 2015. The company’s website, www.oatly.co.uk, stated that it only used Swedish oats. However, a number of its other ingredients were sourced from countries around the world. The company had a turnover of below £50 million but was not considered to have an effective if not explicit supply chain management system. Oatly AB therefore received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for its supply chain management.

Which was strange because Oatly make the following commitment on their website:

“We hope to make the food industry a more honest place by declaring to be totally transparent in everything we do”.

So, back in August 2016, I contacted both Ethical Consumer and Oatly to try and understand the discrepancy between Oatly’s claims and Ethical Consumer’s evaluation of their performance.

And this is where we are some three months since my query . . . . Ethical Consumer state that despite requesting environmental and supply chain data from Oatly last year (in June 2015), and having sent several reminders since then, they have still not received this information.

A genuine misunderstanding, marketing rhetoric or total greenwash? Well, I don’t necessarily have access to the complete picture so it’s hard to say. But it does seem strange – in this age of ‘delivered’ and ‘read’ email receipts, courier services, and guaranteed mail delivery services – that it should be such a challenge to convey information from one organisation to another. And it seems even more odd that a company like Oatly, which is so publicly committed to being “a good company” and to being “transparent”, wouldn’t make it a priority to ensure that Ethical Consumer has the information required to provide independent verification to consumers of the message in those costly Observor ads and elsewhere.

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Sue Written by:

I'm an accountant (ACCA) who's interested in whether we're accounting for the right things in the right ways.

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