[Written by Lillian Salvatore (she/her)]
It’s a strange thing to mourn the death of a brand. In the grand scheme of things, Topshop falling into administration or Oatly selling 10% of their shares to a Trump supporting organisation, wouldn’t even be a footnote on the list of all the awful things that have happened in the last year. But watching your favourite Swedish oat milk brand go against everything they’ve ever told you can feel oddly personal, like going through a breakup after finding out that the hot, eco-conscious person you and everyone you know is in love with, has been a secret carnivore for years.
Last November, high-street clothing retailer Topshop went into administration. Early in February, they were bought by online retailer ASOS, ensuring the loss of thousands of jobs and an online move for the brand. I’ll be honest, I haven’t shopped at Topshop for quite a few years, but l still found the news really upsetting. Yes, we can still buy their clothes online, but it was never really about the clothes, was it? They had piercing stations, nail salons and makeup counters; even if you didn’t buy anything, just being in a Topshop store made you feel cool. Under those bright lights sat high fashion at high street prices – and with that price tag you could buy a whole identity. An identity with a celebrity seal of approval sewn into the very seams of Kate Moss’s tea-dresses and Beyonce’s activewear. Topshop, in a way, represented a whole culture of socialising – trying on clothes and having a laugh with your mates in the changing rooms was the highlight to a long week of work or school.
Maybe the loss of this brand was heightened by our current lockdown situation. We haven’t been able to mooch around the shops in months, and next time we’ll be able to, a familiar favourite will be missing. Who knows how long it will be until we can shop in person again, or how many more shops will have had to close their doors in the same fashion. Topshop was part of the Arcadia group – a big, rich company, owned by a pretty disgusting billionaire, Phillip Green. The pandemic wasn’t the only reason they went into administration but if they couldn’t survive this past year, then I’m not sure how our favourite small brands will either.
This strange strand of grief doesn’t start and end with the loss of Saturday afternoon shopping trips. It also seeps into my visits to the supermarket, following me home in the shape of an oat milk carton. I used to exclusively date Oatly, but in September last year the Swedish oat milk brand sold 10% of their company to vocal Trump-supporting and Amazon deforestation group, Blackstone. This came as a pretty big shock to Oatly fans, as the decision appeared to go against everything the brand allegedly stood for. What’s more, 30% of Oatly is also owned by China Resources, a state-owned company of the country with the largest CO2 emissions in the world.
What initially drew me to Oatly was their branding. In many ways, it’s comparable to those wonderful memories of trying on too many clothes in the changing rooms of Topshop, a sort of unexpected joy that is at once universal, while also deeply personal. The Oatly carton with its funny little illustrations made me smile as I drank my morning coffee. I liked that they told me how much CO2 it took to produce my carton of milk – ‘The Boring Side’ was actually not too boring at all. And, not to get too soppy, but knowing I had these cheerful carton cartoons to come down the stairs to every morning made getting out of bed that bit more worthwhile… but alas. We were not to be.
It can be really hard to get back out there, you know. Rude Health was my rebound, but after a few months of seeing one another, I called it quits. She wasn’t doing it for me anymore; she liked expensive dates and I just wanted her to be there for me in the mornings. I was still angry at Oatly and yet I remained plagued with nightmares dressed up as dreams of those funny illustrations. I often caught myself chuckling at their adverts on TV; it was hard to forget ‘The Boring Side.’ But I started ignoring their cold stares from the chilled cabinet in the supermarket, unfollowed all their witty social media accounts and blocked their number from my phone.
Just before Christmas, I met Jörd; they were quiet, and unassuming. They only had three ingredients and I didn’t think I would be into that, but Jörd and I chatted for a while, and I soon realised that they were the one for me. They didn’t need to wear some funny outfit to make me laugh or pretend to care about the environment, while making questionable decisions on the side which rendered them a hypocritical cash grabber. Jörd sits in my fridge now, and every day I come down to them. I pour my morning coffee and feel thankful that I know what I’m getting with them – simple, good oat milk.
I can track my grief for Topshop and Oatly on the seven-stage scale. I very quickly worked through shock and denial and am now stubbornly existing in stage three – anger. I’m angry at our stupid fucking incompetent Tory government for handling this pandemic so badly that thousands of people have lost their jobs, their livelihoods and their lives. I’m angry that we are so accustomed to capitalism that we’ve been gaslighted by relatable branding. I’m angry that we didn’t foresee how a little, cute independent oat milk company, rapidly gaining popularity, would inevitably make bad decisions to hoist themselves further up the capitalist ladder. Oat milk and fast fashion: these are material things, but materialism pads up our life. We live in a capitalist society, where buying clothes from Topshop or having a laugh with your milk carton in the morning is a comfort blanket that we, the lucky ones, can buy in the hopes that it will soften the blow of all the disasters going on outside our front door. So, yes, I am crying oat-milk tears over my ‘Joni’ jeans, and everything they do, or did, represent.