Monday, January 7, 2008


Another one bites the dust.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about the purchase of Burt’s Bee’s by Clorox. Burt’s Bee’s is the company that makes natural, eco-friendly body products (I love the Milk & Honey body lotion and lemon cuticle butter myself). And now Clorox has bought the entire company.

This is happening with increasing frequency, and it’s easy to see why. Consumers have shown they care about how their food and body products are made. Consumers will pay more for healthy, organic products that are manufactured without abusing workers or the environment. Corporate America got the message: “green” is in, “sustainability” and “eco-friendly” are the new buzzwords.

And corporations like Clorox have decided the best way to get their “green” bonafides is to buy an independent company like Burt’s Bee’s, rather than changing how they do business themselves.

More often than not, there’s no indication that the wholesome product you’re buying has a big nasty corporate parent--and that’s no accident. It’s called “greenwashing,” and Clorox isn’t the only one getting on board. Last year, Colgate bought 84% of Tom’s of Maine, the company known for its organic toothpaste, deodorant and mouthwash. In 2001, Coca Cola purchased Odwalla, the organic juice company. Nothing beats Odwalla limeade on a hot summer day, in my book. In 2003, Group Danone, the French company that owns Evian and Volvic waters, among other things, purchased controlling interest in Stonyfield Farm/Brown Cow, the organic dairy. If you’ve never had Brown Cow cream-top vanilla yogurt, you are in for a treat--it’s more delicious than a pint of Haggen-Dazs.

Yes, globalization and corporatization have come to the natural foods store. (An interesting diagram of who owns what can be found here.) Much as I love these brands, this all makes me a little sad. Because one of the reasons I buy this stuff, aside from the fact that they are wonderful products, is that I try to be a socially responsible consumer. Whenever possible, I try to spend my money with companies that don’t abuse their workers or the environment, whose corporate philosophy reflects my ideals of social justice and environmental responsibility.

After all, it’s supposed to be the consumers’ voice in this “free market economy,” right? Aren’t we supposed to be able to vote with our wallets? But it doesn’t work when a big corporation known for human rights abuses in Third World countries (cough*cough*CHIQUITA BRANDS*cough*cough) gobbles up my nice little eco-friendly independent company. It’s not illegal, or course, but it really sucks. The consumers’ voice just got muzzled by a corporate King Kong.

Now, some folks will argue that when Clorox sees how profitable it is to be wholesome and green from their Burt’s Bee’s division, they’ll change their own practices. But that isn’t traditionally the way these stories have played out. Take a look at the case of Horizon Organic dairy and Silk soy milk. Both are now owned by Dean Foods, the country’s largest processor and distributor of dairy products. Horizon, part of Dean’s “WhiteWave” division, now passes off operations like an 8,000 head industrial dairy as organic, despite complaints that they don’t meet the legal requirements for an organic dairy farm. Meanwhile, Dean’s “Silk” and “White Wave” brands of soy milk use soy beans from Brazil and China, countries with specious environmental and human rights records. I mean, come on, China? Yeah, I tried to boycott China, too--for about five minutes. Good luck with that.

I don’t have any answers; I’m not suggesting that there oughta be a law or any such thing. I’m mostly just trying to raise awareness here. And point out what utter bullshit the whole “free hand of the market” concept is, when corporate behemoths barge their way into whatever market they want, often hiding their tracks to keep consumers in the dark. "Free hand," indeed.

I guess the answer is for me to do without Odwalla limeade and Brown Cow vanilla yogurt and Burt’s Bee’s Milk & Honey body lotion and all of the other things that make life so enjoyable. I guess I can do that.

But I’m not giving up toothpaste. No way.