In this interview, originally commissioned and published by Bio Eco Actual, Jim Manson talks to Cecilia McAleavey, director sustainable eating and public affairs at leading oat drink brand Oatly
Q How did you get into the natural and organic sector. What was the appeal for you?
My career has really been a reflection of topics close to my heart – health, sustainability and food.
For me, and I am very well supported by science on this, it is obvious that we have created a broken food system that needs to change. A transition to a more plant-based production and consumption of food is an important way of tackling climate change. For me it’s about our future, he future of my daughters and our planet.
Q How would you describe your working style?
I am really passionate about what I do – pushing for a transition to more sustainable eating habits. I am sure that everyone I work with would agree that that also reflects upon my working style.
“A transition to a more plant-based production and consumption of food is an important way of tackling climate change. For me it’s about our future, the future of my daughters and our planet”
Q The market for plant-based milk has grown enormously in the last 5 years. What potential for further growth do you see for dairy alternatives, and Oatly in particular? Are we anywhere near maximum adoption?
Not even close! There is a growing number of consumers that turn to plant-based food for different reasons – medical, health related, ethical and not least for environmental reasons. With more and more people realising the effect the food system has on finite resources of the planet this development can’t be stopped. Most experts agree that we will continue to see the same continued growth of the plant-based market in the years to come and maybe even more for dairy alternatives due to intolerance and allergies to cow’s milk.
Q Oatly has teamed with ProVeg and Upfield to launch a petition to overturn EU Amendment 171, which you say amounts to ‘plant-based censorship’. Can you explain why you are doing this, and why the plant-based sector sees this as such an urgent priority?
There is an urgency in the climate crisis making the transition to plant-based food an issue involving everyone – from consumers to food producers. Today our food system causes over a quarter of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of which come from the meat and dairy industries. The amendment will make it harder for consumers to find and choose plant-based foods in spite of ever-increasing demand – we might not even be able to say that our products don’t contain milk. Dairy terminology is already protected in the existing legislation. The proposed legislation is so far reaching, it’s absurd. All in all the amendment is counteracting the consumer shift to more sustainable eating habits that’s needed for the planet and future generations.
“Everything we do is based on scientific facts and we do believe that even a small oat company from Sweden can make a difference and make an impact by offering oat-based dairy alternatives and by making our voice heard. Our way of doing that is by challenging norms and putting the spotlight on important issues for anyone from consumers to politicians to consider”
Q Oatly has been a campaigning brand from the beginning, and prepared to antagonise the dairy industry in particular! Has being an ‘activist brand’ worked to Oatly’s advantage?
It has never really been a conscious choice, but we are on a mission to bring about systemic change towards a plant-based future. That includes making people question their dairy habits and making it easier for them to choose plant-based alternatives. Everything we do is based on scientific facts and we do believe that even a small oat company from Sweden can make a difference and make an impact by offering oat-based dairy alternatives and by making our voice heard. Our way of doing that is by challenging norms and putting the spotlight on important issues for anyone from consumers to politicians to consider. And of course we are going to use our campaigns to do that!
Q Can you tell me about the current ‘Help Dad’ campaign? Many people love it, but it has come in for some criticism too.
Well, the idea comes from the fact that we only have 10 years to stop climate change. We know that the younger generation is often the one driving change to tackle climate change. I have met many fathers who have changed their behaviour after having discussions with their children. As Oatly is based on the idea of change the ‘help-dad’ campaign is our way of helping teens help anyone in their life that needs to adopt a more plant-based lifestyle. We are happy that our campaigns start discussions because that means that we get to talk about the overarching problem – that we need to change our behavior and transition to a more plant-based diet for the sake of the planet.
Q Which demographic offers the biggest growth opportunity for Oatly – vegan and special diet, the green/organic consumer, or the flexitarians?
The simple answer is everyone. We need to get people all over the world to eat more plant-based food if we are to tackle climate change. And the increasing demand of plant-based food shows that more and more people are realising that they can make a huge impact with small changes in their diet. Diet is one of the keys to tackle climate change.
Q What would you say are the standout features of Oatly’s products?
That would definitely be the oats themselves. It’s a sustainable crop with a naturally sweet taste. It also offers great health benefits because of its fantastic beta glucan fibres which has proven to balance cholesterol levels. At the same time – no one is going to change from their current favourite foods if the alternative isn’t good and I personally find our products so much tastier than traditional dairy products. I hope and believe other consumers would agree with me on that.
Q In some markets Oatly offers a wider range of organic products than in others. Why is that? Would you agree that plant-based+organic is a compelling combination?
Of course. However, there is a challenge as the legal framework today doesn’t allow fortification of organic products. This is problematic from a nutritional point of view. It’s important for us to offer products that are fortified with for example minerals like calcium and vitamins. The legal framework is obsolete in this respect and needs to be up-dated to promote sustainable diets, especially when it comes to plant-based dairy products. However, irrespective of whether the product is organic or not it is good to know that oats is a sustainable crop in itself.
Q Which other brands in the natural and organic market do you admire?
There are so many! We can’t afford to stick with old traditions and norms when science has shown us that we need to cut back on animal-based foods and instead switch to foods that are good for both the planet and health. So it makes me very happy to see the power of innovation – all the new entrepreneurs and brands striving for new solutions within food tech, but also how established brands are changing and trying to find new ways.
• This article was first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Bio Eco Actual
Cecilia McAleavey is a committed spokesperson for the plant-based revolution. She joined Oatly in the beginning of 2016, a science-based company which in 2019 was recognized by Fast Company as one of the top ten most innovative companies in the world. In her role as Director of Sustainable Eating and Public Affairs at Oatly she is advocating a shift to plant-based diets to tackle climate change and public health challenges. In addition, Cecilia McAleavey is the President of Plant-foods Sweden, a Swedish Industry Organisation promoting plant-based production and consumption of plant-based foods. Furthermore, she is representing Oatly on the Steering Committee of the Brussels-based European Alliance for Plant-based Foods (EAPF) which she has helped setting up.
Cecilia has spent most of her career on sustainability and communication. She started off her career as a journalist before moving on to working for the European Commission and the cabinet of the Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. She continued her career working at Lund University and the University Hospital of Malmö. Before joining Oatly, Cecilia had a role as Sustainability Director at Orkla, another Nordic food company.