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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.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Petrenko Andriy/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

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.

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.

 
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