College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Selling Out or Buying In?

April 7, 2006

By Dara O'Rourke | April 5, 2006

A U D I O
Listen to "Tom's of Wall Street" on KQED's Perspectives

FIRST MY socially responsible ice cream. Then my local, earth-conscious juice. Then my hip, alternative, throwback sneakers. Then my daughter's organic yogurt. Then my wife's animal-friendly cosmetics. Now it's the one toothpaste I believed in . . . if it makes any sense to believe in a toothpaste.

Ben and Jerry's was bought out by Unilever. Fresh Samantha was devoured by Odwalla, itself owned by Coca-Cola. Converse by Nike. Stonyfield Farms by Danone. Aveda by Estee Lauder. The Body Shop by L'Oreal. Now Tom's of Maine sells out, is bought out, is merged in, or, if you believe the founder, is to be a ''stand-alone subsidiary" of Colgate-Palmolive.

Many of the products we think of as ''alternative" or ''natural" or ''socially responsible" or just plain ''independent" are now owned by major multinational corporations. Perhaps this is good? A sign that mainstream America cares and wants to buy these kinds of products? Tom Chappell, cofounder of Tom's of Maine, calls it an irony that ''although we are growing in the high teens and low 20s, it's not enough to meet a demand 10 times the size." Tom goes on to explain that, ''about 25 percent of Americans are interested in these kinds of products."

So as Tom wants us to believe, this selling-out isn't about cashing in, it's about reaching the masses through those elusive retail channels only a multinational corporation can access.

And maybe this is good news for environmentally and socially responsible products. A sign that Main Street and Wall Street are finally buying into companies that do well by doing good. Certainly this reminds us that global corporations have the potential to spread phthalate-free perfumes and organic juices just as fast as they spread Marlboros and Coke.

And maybe these multinationals will even adopt some of the principles and practices that made Tom's grow so fast and turned Ben and Jerry and Body Shop owner Anita Roddick into trusted names. Imagine if L'Oreal followed the Body Shop's lead and stopped animal testing and phased out the most toxic chemicals they slip into their face creams. Or if Coca-Cola listened to Odwalla's mission statement and committed to nourishing people and caring for the earth. Or if Unilever copied Ben and Jerry's old policy on limiting CEO salaries.

This could be good.

Unfortunately, we have seen little evidence of this sweet organic cream rising to the top of the global milkshake.

In fact, these brands seem a little embarrassed of their new adoptive parents. Tom says simply that packaging will not identify his company as a subsidiary of Colgate. Which makes me wonder how many hipsters know that their Converse All-Stars and their Hurley skateboard hoodies are produced by Nike? Or that their Odwalla Wellness Fruit Drink with Echinacea is manufactured by Coke?

This stealth relationship is a sign that while these multinationals covet progressive brands, they are at least a little nervous about losing the trust and connections these small companies have built with consumers. These global buy-outs will certainly move Tom's into the mainstream, but it will also connect these small firms to big global controversies. The Body Shop is being boycotted in England for the sins of L'Oreal. Converse is being criticized by anti-sweatshop activists. Odwalla has been included in campus boycotts against Coke.

These new relationships also connect these firms to demands for even faster growth. Tom is no longer really of Maine. He is now of Wall Street. And 20 percent growth may just not be enough. Will he now feel pressures to put profits before people and the environment? Will he stop doing the things that made me like him in the first place -- like putting natural ingredients in his toothpastes and calling out big companies like Colgate for putting saccharin in theirs?

Ultimately these deals threaten the one thing that really made these companies special -- that consumers believed in their values. As subsidiaries of major multinational firms, they will no longer be given the benefit of the doubt about what these companies stand for, what they believe in, what they are trying to achieve. They now have to prove that they are not just selling out. They have to be much more transparent and back up their social and environmental claims. And they have to show that they are improving their parent companies rather than being abused by them.

Maybe I shouldn't have ever believed in a toothpaste or a shampoo or an ice cream. I now realize I didn't really know that much about Tom or Anita or Ben anyway. And I will now ask a lot more before I trust or believe in them again.

Dara O'Rourke is an assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Boston Globe and online at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion
/oped/articles/2006/04/05/selling_out_or_buying_in/

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