Trendy Swedish food company Oatly is fooling you. That, at least, is what a Medium post from entrepreneurial self-help guru Nat Eliason, which recently went viral thanks to a stray tweet, claimed last summer. While oat milk enjoys an aura of health, and Oatly’s slogan—“It’s like milk but made for humans”—implies it’s better for you than dairy, the production process, Eliason wrote, involves adding oil and enzymes that break down oat carbohydrates, resulting in a big spike in blood sugar levels.
There’s definitely some creative advertising happening on Oatly’s part, as is true of pretty much all food products. (Of note: Eliason is not a nutritionist or any other kind of health professional.) But the main value-add of nondairy milk, from a climate perspective—much as with meat alternatives—isn’t really that it’s healthier. It just tastes good enough that people might opt for it instead of the alternative. And if you’ve got a lactose intolerance, it may be the closest you can get to the real thing.
On carbon, the comparisons are pretty straightforward: Oat milk is responsible for fewer greenhouse gases than either dairy milk or soy milk. Oat milk production uses more land than almond or soy milk—0.8 square meters a year—but 10 times less than dairy milk. It also uses just 48 liters of water per liter of milk, compared to 628 for dairy milk, 371 for almond milk, and 28 for soy milk.
Despite its sugar content, oat milk is very popular—so much so that Oatly’s been expanding in North America. It was for that reason that the company first decided to open up shop in my hometown of Millville, New Jersey, in 2018, citing the small city’s proximity to major markets in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. The first facility was built by the local company Innovation Foods. As Innovation Foods’ General Manager Nick Catalana explained to me, that facility uses a patented process that “turns raw oats into the oat-based ingredient” present in all of Oatly’s product, combining them with water. That ingredient is then loaded into tanker trucks that ferry it to other facilities to make the milk and package it into boxes. A new $45 million facility to be owned and operated by Innovation Foods will be located just behind the original site, which though built by Innovation Foods is owned and operated by Oatly. A pipeline will connect the two facilities, funneling the “raw ingredient” to be processed into milk on-site. They’ll package it into the shelf-stable boxes found in grocery stores and used by baristas. Innovation will then ship them out to grocery stores and coffee shops across the East Coast.
The expansion of Oatly production in Millville would appear to be a successful preview for the era of green industrial policy many in the Biden administration hope to usher in with the Build Back Better agenda: A lowish-carbon industry is bringing tens of millions of dollars of investment to an area hard hit by deindustrialization. Given the outsize contribution of animal agriculture to the climate crisis, an expanding nondairy milk industry is probably a net positive for the world.
But the city likely won’t reap much of the benefit of the company’s hotly anticipated $10 billion initial public offering, a sum boosted by $200 million backing from the private equity giant Blackstone and a lucrative deal to roll out its products at Starbucks locations across the country. And with the new site expected to create just 40 jobs, and up to 70 pending future expansions, that doesn’t mean Millville is poised to return to its salad days as a manufacturing hub. In this sense, Millville’s “oat pipeline” also offers a useful example of why manufacturing jobs may be the wrong bet when trying to create a bustling, climate-friendly economy.
Millville was founded in 1795 by a not particularly creative Revolutionary War veteran who hoped to build mills (thus the name) off the strength of the Maurice River that runs through it. Dense forests in the area provided plenty of raw materials for furnaces and foundries smelting iron ore into stoves and lamp posts that could be shipped to Philadelphia. The ironworks provided the start-up capital for what became known as the Millville Manufacturing Company to get into textile production. But the city’s main business would be glassmaking, present in Millville since before it was called that. Abundant silica sand provided the critical raw ingredients for glassmaking, and so Wheaton Industries turned Millville into a hub for commercial manufacturing, specializing in pharmaceutical glass items like vials and medicine bottles. “A man with nothing, hailing from nowhere, can get an easy job at fair pay,” Carl Sandburg wrote in 1904. “Boys can carry bottles and girls can work in the cotton-mills near by. The glass-blowers union is one of the most perfect organizations in the country.”
Glass and textile businesses both took hits in the Great Depression and benefited from wartime contracts. Glassmaking continued for a while, though even by the 1930s automation—through innovations like bottle-blowing machines—had largely eliminated the need for skilled glassblowers. The textile business declined shortly after the war as the development of disposable baby diapers cut into its core market, and the industry migrated south in search of lower wages. Up through 1977, glassmaking still employed some 9,000 people in Millville, and—like many other industries—it entered into serious decline in the 1980s. The advent of plastics and competition from abroad hit the industry especially hard, emptying out much of the city’s once bustling downtown; by 1984, unemployment in Cumberland County, where Millville is housed, had climbed to 16.4 percent. In 1996, Wheaton Industries was bought out by a Swiss firm, which was acquired four years later by a Canadian company called Alcan. In 2015, the German company Gerresheimer Glass shut down its last moulded-glass operation on Wheaton Avenue, shedding some 130 unionized jobs in the process. The glass business continues to provide jobs in Millville, but at a drastically smaller scale than it once did.
While the opening of an oat milk operation may well be good news and even a source of local pride, it won’t remedy the fact that Cumberland County has the lowest per capita income in the state or that it has an unemployment rate that, at roughly 9 percent, outstrips both the state and national average. While it’s likely that a majority of the 40 employees at the new facility will be hired locally and may be decently paid, those jobs won’t extend health care coverage to the 11 percent of county residents who are uninsured.
None of those dynamics are unique to South Jersey: Manufacturing just isn’t what it used to be. A study from the University of California at Berkeley in 2016 found that a third of production workers in the United States have to rely on public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, and temporary labor accounts for a growing share of factory work. That’s in large part thanks to decades of attacks on organized labor. Accordingly, Oatly employees won’t benefit from the kind of representation provided by the mighty Glass Bottle Blowers Association.
Oatly, in other words, may be about as good for your health as green factories are for the unemployment rate: There’s some genuine good news backing up all that boosterish P.R. But neither of them, obviously, is some kind of panacea for the dense network of problems affecting the climate, economy, and food production.
Without question, the U.S. needs the state to support the growth of low-carbon sectors. Even the greenest of industries that may establish factories thanks to government support, though, will likely feature fewer people making less money and with less say over how their workplace is run than in the golden age of American manufacturing. To avert the climate crisis, the U.S. should probably be making more solar panels and batteries and (yes) oat milk; ideally more of those factories will be unionized. To make a good society, though, it’ll have to ensure that whether people can put food on the table or get health care doesn’t depend on the companies that produce them. And, crucially, it will have to think beyond manufacturing when it imagines what green jobs might look like.