The Future

Sweden’s ‘Milk War’ is getting udderly vicious

The Swedish dairy lobby is fighting alternative milks, like Oatly, as if they’re an existential threat.
The Future

Sweden’s ‘Milk War’ is getting udderly vicious

The Swedish dairy lobby is fighting alternative milks, like Oatly, as if they’re an existential threat.

Sit through any TV commercial break at almost any time in Sweden today, and you’re bound to see one of several  different  ads, each with a different set of characters but all following the same script, which goes something like this:

Hero (cool, happy, going about a contented, milk-fueled day): What is that?

Loser (dejected, wan, possible personality disorder): It’s brölk (made-up Swedish word).

Hero: Does it taste like mjölk (milk)?

Loser: Nope.

Then a fist punches a carton of what looks like oat milk off the screen as an invisible glam-rock vocalist sings a refrain of “Milk is milk!” The ad ends by flashing the slogan “Only milk tastes like milk.”

The ads, released by the Swedish dairy conglomerate Arla, are the latest escalation in the vicious, so-called Milk War that has been raging over the last five years between Sweden’s powerful dairy industry and the virally popular Swedish oat milk brand Oatly. The war has played out on the national stage, in the form of lawsuits and attack ads, as a bitter struggle not just over market share but over what it means to be Swedish in 2019.

“Milk has been a natural part of Swedes’ diet and culture for over a century — it’s in the Swedes’ souls,” Rosanna Hagald of the Stockholm-based ad agency Åkestam Holst, which produced the “Milk is milk” campaign for Arla, told me in an interview. “For the last couple of years, a lot of new competitors have entered the market and tried to convince people to choose other beverages over milk.”

This is undoubtedly a reference to Oatly, which the Arla ads clearly parody.

Oatly speaks to another side of the Swedish soul — the side that takes pride in self-deprivation for the sake of the environment. This is the side that gave birth to Greta Thunberg and the flygskam (flight-shame) movement, a side that IKEA is currently pandering to with an ad for a recycling-friendly kitchen interior that ends with the essentially Swedish tagline: “A little hard. But worth it.”

Oatly was founded by Swedish food scientist Rickard Öste in 1994, but his patented milk-like formula remained obscure until 2014, when the company’s feisty, new CEO, Toni Petersson, redesigned its packaging to call attention to wastefulness and environmental impact of cow milk production. Humans can get most of the nutrients they need directly from plants, Oatly argued on its packaging and in a series of quirky YouTube ads, while getting actual cow milk is an unnecessary, pollutive alternative for the same calories and nutrients.

According to UN data, livestock farming accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions — more than all the world’s cars (14 percent) and all the world’s airplanes (two percent). With this in mind, Oatly sponsored a music festival in Gothenburg in 2015 and challenged attendees to go milk-free for 72 hours. With slogans such as “It’s like milk but made for humans” and “Wow, no cow!” Oatly presented its product as a political tool with which consumers could chisel away at an industry that threatens life on earth.

Thus the first shots in the Milk War were fired.

“Before Oatly, there was never any question about whether you should drink milk or serve it in schools to kids, so some people saw Oatly as some kind of condescending company trying to manipulate the Swedish people,” Isa Ellman, a graphic designer whose bachelor’s thesis on the Milk War was published by Gothenburg University’s communications department earlier this year, told me.

LRF Mjölk, the Swedish dairy lobby, sued Oatly for disparaging cow milk.

“People got offended, like, they thought you should not attack the milk-drinking people of Sweden,” Ellman said.

One of the offended parties was LRF Mjölk, the Swedish dairy lobby, which sued Oatly for disparaging cow milk. Oatly lost the case in 2015 and was ordered to stop referring to its own product as milk and to stop implying that cow milk is either unhealthy or not fit for human consumption.

Oatly responded by publishing the text of the lawsuit, making LRF Mjölk look like it was bullying the tiny oat company. Oatly’s sales soared, giving it all the encouragement it needed to expand overseas. Today, Oatly has a factory in New Jersey, another one planned for Utah, and distribution across China. Its sales revenue topped $100 million in 2018 and may double this year, making it the indisputable world champion of dairy substitutes.

But inside milk-loving Sweden, the honeymoon was short-lived. Oatly doubled down on its attacks against the dairy industry, launching a campaign earlier this year calling on the public to “Flush the milk” — a reference to a long-running Swedish public service ad entreating the public to “Flush the brandy” in an effort to curb alcohol abuse.

A still from an Arla ad mocking milk substitutes.

A still from an Arla ad mocking milk substitutes.

To some, the comparison of milk consumption to alcohol abuse crossed a line. Social media users reacted by demanding that people “Flush Oatly.” One critic wrote on Instagram: “I get so nauseous when I see how they do their advertising and consistently avoid talking about their benefits but instead talk about how lousy milk is (for no reason).”

Other critics called out Oatly’s “hypocrisy” for selling a partial ownership stake in 2016 to a Chinese state-owned conglomerate. “[China] is the world's single largest polluter, with coal plants spewing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Had Oatly pointed this out, it would have undoubtedly been harder to present itself as a ‘climate-friendly’ alternative to milk,” reads one Swedish newspaper editorial from September.

Oatly contends that the sale gave it access to the Chinese market, an essential step toward curbing global cow milk consumption and preventing a “climate disaster.”

With Oatly fending off the public backlash, Arla has sought to regain ground. Its current series of attack ads refer to milk substitutes using the made-up words pjölk, brölk, sölk, and trölk, emphasizing that they are anything but mjölk — the Swedish word for milk.

“That an oat milk company shows up possessing no fear at all and all too eager to witness your demise must be dreadful.”
John Schoolcraft

Oatly fired back in September by trademarking Arla’s made-up words and printing them on its packaging. Arla promptly filed an objection with the Swedish Patent and Registration Office, claiming Oatly registered the phrases in bad faith. Oatly revels in the constant attention it receives from Arla — a much larger, nearly monopolistic company — taking it as evidence of its own success.

“It must be terrible to wake up one day and realize consumers see through your propaganda and that your products are totally out of sync with what the planet needs to ensure its future,” Oatly creative director John Schoolcraft told me. “That an oat milk company shows up possessing no fear at all and all too eager to witness your demise must be dreadful. I don’t feel sorry for them at all.”

This is where the Milk War stands today — with a country divided into oat-lovers who believe cow milk is destroying the planet and milk-lovers who cannot give up the taste and tradition of Swedish dairy. This impasse sheds light on the final hurdles many plant-based meat and dairy substitutes will have to jump before they can supplant larger, factory-farming competitors.

According to plant-based food advocates, every meat and dairy substitute that is gaining mainstream popularity today, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, has been able to dissuade consumers of four key beliefs, known as the “four Ns” — that animal products are normal, necessary, natural, and nice. The first three have been the relatively easy to dispel — veganism is common, it has been proven to be healthy, and it is better for the planet than dependence on livestock farming.

“Niceness” — the belief that animal products are tastier than plant-based substitutes — is a much more difficult nut to crack. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the rare outliers that have nailed their flavors and textures well enough to forge partnerships with the meat industry rather than sparking a war.

Oatly, on the other hand, has staked its claim to “Niceness” not by posing as cow milk but by casting itself as distinct from and superior to the outdated interspecies ritual of cow milk consumption.

“The reason we have had such great success with our products is that, in addition to them being significantly more sustainable than cow’s milk, they actually taste great, oftentimes better than cow’s milk. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any future for them,” said Schoolcraft, Oatly’s creative director.

Oatly’s army of loyal fans agree. Madeleine Blixt, a Stockholm-based artist and teacher, told me how Oatly’s moral argument intrigued her, but the taste has kept her hooked for the last five years.

Sipping coffee in her kitchen, she said: “I would never drink cow milk — its tastes like cow-titties! It would be a shock for my mouth to taste all the cow-mommy hormones and estrogen that aren’t for humans. If I wanted milk, I would ask my own mother!”

Jacob Goldberg is a writer and photographer based in Stockholm and Phnom Penh. His reporting has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, and Columbia Journalism Review.