How to Tell if Your Favorite Companies Are Truly Progressive or Secretly Selling Out

Fran Hawthorne, author of "Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love," dishes on some big-name companies.

Photo Credit: Petrenko Andriy/

Many progressives know that some of their favorite companies have dirty secrets. Many are also aware that in the last 30 years, a number of socially responsible independent companies have accepted buy-outs from larger corporations for various reasons. French Group Danone acquired organic yogurt purveyor Stonyfield Farms in several stages over the last decade. Unilever bought Vermont-based ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. Colgate-Palmolive bought all-natural toothpaste brand Tom’s of Maine in 2006. Clorox purchased natural personal care products manufacturer Burt’s Bees in 2008.

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There are many compelling reasons for these corporate acquisitions. In the case of Tom’s of Maine, for instance, the family-owned company became too much to handle for its aging founders, who first launched their humble line of truly all-natural toothpaste in 1970. With none of their children ready to take the reins, founders Tom and Kate Chappell sold an 84 percent controlling stake in the business to Colgate-Palmolive for $100 million. The family retains enough controlling power to keep the company true to its core values, but many loyal customers still saw the sale—and the subsequent packaging changes—as a betrayal.

But does literally selling out mean a company will virtually do so as well? For many small, ethically minded companies, the choice to remain independent or sell is a catch-22. Allowing partial or full ownership by a larger company can free up resources to focus on getting back to core values. Similarly, a brand like Tom’s of Maine may end up in more shops as a result of having the Colgate marketing and distribution power pushing the once-tiny brand into new markets.

But some companies, like Starbucks, have fared worse on the corporate social responsibility report card as they’ve grown. Starbucks may not have sold out literally, but its size doesn’t help its image as a green, fair-trade bean buyer. The environmental degradation the coffee giant causes every year is shocking. Similarly, companies such as American Apparel offer certain perks like free bicycles and well-stocked cafeterias at their factories while otherwise engaging in anti-worker activities such as union busting.

So why do these myths of good working conditions, ethically sourced raw materials and environmental stewardship linger? Fran Hawthorne, a journalist whose latest book is Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love, delves into some of the reasons why these companies may still be the most progressive big businesses out there—and whether or not we should support them based on a report card evaluating working conditions, commitment to public service, and environmental and humane practices. Hawthorne chatted with me by phone about some of the companies she profiled in her book.

Brittany Shoot: Some of the companies you wrote about have sold or swallowed up by larger conglomerates in the last two decades. How have some of these companies—Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s—been able to maintain their ethical, cool image despite no longer being independent businesses?

Fran Hawthorne: Well, for example, there is no other national ethical ice cream brand other than Ben & Jerry’s. There are local alternatives in some places, but no other brand consistently makes it into a big, national supermarket.

Now, generally, Ben & Jerry’s adheres to what made them so beloved for ethical reasons, whether it’s natural ingredients, environmental practices, or good treatment of workers. A couple of reasons that they mostly retain these aspects is because that’s the reason the big conglomerate wanted to purchase the company in the first place. There is a huge consumer market out there that wants to buy into these socially responsible companies, and if the big conglomerates destroy what made these companies beloved, they’re going to lose these consumers. It’s just bad business to wreck the brand or to do anything to dilute the brand. That’s part of the reason they retain key attributes, and also why the big conglomerates buy these little beloved brands. They see that fills a niche.

BS: Why did you choose to include Trader Joe’s in the book? Would you say they’re a socially responsible store, or simply a cheaper alternative to other chain supermarkets?

FH: Trader Joe’s absolutely has an image of corporate social responsibility and has intentionally created the image of being your local neighborhood store with the slogan “Your Neighborhood Grocery Store.”

In reality, it’s one of the biggest chains in the country, and it’s owned by a big German conglomerate run by [the Albrecht brothers], two of the wealthiest people in the world according to Forbes. Because it’s part of a huge international grocery chain, it’s no more local than Vons, Safeway, Kroger’s, or Publix. It doesn’t buy local; it’s the opposite of local. That’s their whole thing. “We searched the world for these exotic foods.” I mean, that’s fine, but it’s the opposite of local. Part of their image that appeals to these socially responsible consumers who want to buy local is, in fact, a lie. Just think about. “We’re your little local neighborhood store.”

Also, people confuse fun, funky, cute, wood-paneled walls with—well, it creates this image of counterculture. They didn’t set out to declare themselves counterculture, but they sure set out to hype this image that they’re not corporate, and that’s a lie, too. They carry a lot of organic and natural products, but they don’t only stock organic products. Some of their image is justified, but some of it isn’t.

BS: Another company you profile in the book, Apple, has long been thought of as a leader in terms of corporate responsibility. They’ve been in the headlines so much lately for the controversy surrounding the labor conditions at their factories in China, and I always wonder if the conversations we are having about these issues now will have a long-term impact. Do you see incremental change and signs that things are improving?

FH: One good thing about these articles that have come out about Apple and the conditions in China is, in fact, that they have broadened the conversation to talk about, “What are conditions like in China? What is the responsibility of the U.S.-based companies that have subcontracted, and subcontracted, and subcontracted?” It’s leading to broader discussions because Apple is so big and well known. Apple’s new CEO is paying attention, and the company hired an outside monitor for the Foxconn factories in China. Any story about practices at Apple has the clout to trigger a broader conversation. I think it’s a good thing.

BS: Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve never seen Starbucks as an independent brand. I’ve never seen them as the commons for the people, a place that people from every social class and background can walk into a Starbucks. I’ve always seen it as the independent coffee shop killer, an expensive chain, the McDonald’s of coffee shops.

FH: I don’t think too many people today, if anybody at all, thinks of Starbucks as an independent brand. No, I think everybody sees it as a big huge corporation as opposed to the beloved local coffee shop. Starbucks has a reputation for ethical aspects though it’s also seen as a big chain killing little independents. What it does that most restaurants don’t is provide health insurance for its workers.

BS: Why do you think the myths around American Apparel’s work culture and ethical brand persist? I’m amazed that it continues to sort of hold this place as this cool, ethical company, when it’s so obvious that, in many ways, they are not. 

FH: I do think American Apparel does two very important things that are rare today that I believe should be applauded and encouraged. One is it’s such a strong advocacy for immigrant’s rights. AA does all kinds of things like offer English language classes and march in the Cinco de Mayo parade in Los Angeles and stuff like that. They’re really seen by the Latino community, and by immigrants rights groups as very, very supportive and very out in front of these issues. I do think that should be acknowledged.

The other thing is the fact that they manufacture in the U.S. While they are not hugely influential, pretty much everybody—even kind of grudgingly, or off the record, even the unions—sort of acknowledge that it’s a pretty good place to work. I was there. The office is air conditioned, and the factory is not, but having said that, it’s airy, and there are tons of windows. I saw the cafeteria. It’s a huge cafeteria with lots of choices of food. I saw the clinic on-site with subsidized healthcare. I mean, I saw the masseuse is coming to offer free massages. They were like professional massages; we’re not talking sleazy stuff. There are free bikes for workers. If they would get a real CEO and a professional manager, who will respect the good parts and professionally run the rest of it with respect for women, and it could be a terrific company. Actually, it’s a really simple solution.

Brittany Shoot is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. Find her at