Is Big Green Bad?

Posted on January 9, 2009 by Allie

Maria recently left a comment on an old post about no-poo saying “FYI, Aveda is owned by Johnson & Johnson. Just like Odwalla is owned by Coke. Sad but true!” and it got me thinking again about something that has bounced around in my head frequently.

I love supporting small businesses, and tend to be very suspicious of “big corporate,” which is probably no big surprise to anyone.  I always flinch just a little when I talk about Burt’s Bees products, even though I love their Super Shiny Shampoo and Conditioner (which are a 2 and a 1 on Skin Deep, respectively, compared to a 6 from the products I used to use) more than any other hair care product I’ve ever tried.   Burt’s Bees is no longer owned by that folksy, bearded man named Burt.  Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox (and while Burt made millions, I seem to remember reading somewhere that he went back to living in his old converted chicken coop, because he felt more comfortable there, but I can’t remember where I read that, so please take it with a grain of salt).

I think the natural greenie line of thinking (or at least my natural line of thinking) is Burt’s Bees now equals Clorox, Clorox equals bad scary chemicals, so Burt’s Bees equals bad.  But does it?  Burt built up a strong name based on good, affordable, accessible, mostly natural products.  Clorox said, “Hey, there’s a market for healthier, more natural products and we want to get in on this.”  Burt’s Bees continues to work on several local environmental and humanitarian initiatives, is working toward making all of it’s products 100% natural, and is a Compact for Safe Cosmetics signer.  On Skin Deep, their products range from 0-6, so you still need to check before you buy if you want to stay below a certain number, but most of them score very well.  But since the sale to Clorox, keeping up with the standards set by Burt seems to be a priority.

Should we only support business when they’re small and then back away from them when they get too successful, even if they maintain their standards?

What about supporting healthier products and higher environmental standards for businesses?  If no one buys Odwalla juice, won’t Coke just say, “I guess everyone wants to ingest ridiculous amounts of high fructose corn syrup, because there’s just no market for our non-GMO juices.”

But, of course, there’s that nagging fear that buying healthy products from notoriously unhealthy companies will be supporting negative practices and initiatives.  Honestly, I’m not 100% sure where I stand on this.  I just have this suspicion that if we’re ever going to get anywhere on this whole green thing, we might have to flex a little on the small = good, big = bad thing, and take a good hard look at the actual actions of the companies housed under bigger brand names.  After all, companies exist to make a profit.  If green products living up to high standards are profitable, big business might be forced to head in a better direction.

18 Comments +

  1. I am so so SOOO on the same page.

    I avoided Burt’s Bees for a while, but their chapstick is just amazing. And I got some deep conditioner from my sister, and love that it’s free of so many nasty chemicals.

    But – the profits go to Clorox. And I don’t want to support big companies who make money off of bleach. I just don’t.

    But, also: Good! Natural! Products!

    I am so torn.

    January 9th, 2009 at 6:19 pm
    Comment by ashley.
  2. It is a tough one, but since the big companies aren’t going to just go away because a few of us tree-huggers have sworn off their products, I suppose we should be happy that they are actively pursuing greener ways of doing business. And Clorox wanting to play by our rules, if not across the board, is a good thing.

    Also, I will now be keeping one eye on my Burt’s Bees conditioner when I’m in the shower. You never can trust those big corporate types completely.

    January 9th, 2009 at 6:37 pm
    Comment by mickey
  3. In my mind, Burt’s Bees’ brand is diluted because the profits now do go toward things I don’t believe in. At the same time, I think it’s absolutely essential to have big companies going green, so it’s important to support those efforts.

    That said, for me, the greenest way to spend my money is in my local community from a trusted business who gives back to the community, treats its employees well, uses local and organic ingredients, and makes their products as simple and effective as possible. So that is always where my money will go first. Thus, if one of my local companies sold to Clorox, I would be less apt to buy from them simply because they are no longer local, and I no longer know where my money is really going.

    January 9th, 2009 at 7:15 pm
    Comment by Melinda
  4. I also try to spend money in my own community, but I think it’s great that bigger corporations are going green. They will make a huge difference in the population at large going green I think.

    I personally like to make as much as I can at home, then I try to find it locally, and if I can’t do either of those, I try to find a smaller company that can provide what I need. My final choice is corporate America.

    January 9th, 2009 at 7:19 pm
    Comment by Susy
  5. It’s a tough one, and goes back to the whole, “it’s not easy being green” thing. If only saving the planet were as easy as buying something.

    I guess the problem is that Burt’s Bees had to be bought by Clorox in order to be distributed nationally. They simply couldn’t handle the volume of sales they now have.

    (And I read the same thing about Burt, but I do believe that he was also swindled out of a good deal of money by the first person who bought his company and then sold it to Clorox. I too have no footnote for that.)

    January 9th, 2009 at 7:54 pm
    Comment by Noelle
  6. I agree with Mickey in the sense that the big companies aren’t going to go away. I think we need to encourage greener practices by buying products like Burt’s — but it’s important to still keep an eye on them to make sure they are prioritizing Burt’s initiatives. If we buy their green products, maybe they’ll get the hint and reform some of their other products/practices.

    January 9th, 2009 at 9:54 pm
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  7. My husband and I have lost many an hour to this discussion. Is Burt’s Bees bad now because they’re owned by Clorox? Did Tom’s of Maine lose its integrity by selling out to Colgate? Is Chipotle hypocritical for alligning themselves with McDonalds? Or were they just good business moves?

    We’ve never come to a conclusion, and it’s just a choice each person has to make. I agree with Melinda that the best thing is to buy from small, locally owned companies. On the other hand, Burt’s Bees is local to me – the headquarters are in Research Triangle Park and it provides lots of jobs in the area.

    Going green is not easy!

    January 10th, 2009 at 2:32 am
    Comment by Erin aka Conscious Shopper
  8. Yes, it is very tricky. I have a general lack of faith in big companies and tend to use them very little. But yes, when they seem to be sticking to the green credentials of a company they have eaten up or when they are taking strides of their own accord in the right direction then it does seem a little churlish or stubborn not to support them. But nonetheless something inside me tells me it is not something I particularly want to do but I am not sure it is an entirely logical something.

    I do buy local and from individuals where I can.

    Interesting discussion. It’s rather nice to know I am not alone in feeling this way.

    January 10th, 2009 at 12:10 pm
    Comment by Reluctant Blogger
  9. Once I found out Tom’s of Maine sold out to a corporation I stopped buying it. Same with Burt Bee’s though Wolf still does (and it irritates me).

    As far as I’m concerned these great small companies — like Burt’s and Tom’s — sold out Metalica style. I’m skeptical the corporations haven’t started mucking with the recipes. I don’t believe the corporation really gives a hoot about the greenness of the product, they care about the profits. When the corporation saw money was being made they moved in and made an offer Godfather style.

    I’m a black and white girl, there’s little gray in my world. So a sell out is a sell out. I recognize the detriment of this thinking but it’s the way my brain works.

    January 10th, 2009 at 2:56 pm
    Comment by Howling Hill
  10. Well just great, I was pretty sure Burt’s Bees was no longer just a small company, a bit obvious, but I had no idea they were owned by Clorox. That being said I will not give up using their products, I love them.

    I think there is line and something like a small company becoming big, like Burt’s Bees is a bit different than the new green line of cleaners, is that also Clorox, I don’t know I haven’t used it, but my point is I would much rather use Ecover’s products because they seem to be (just going by what I read on their website) green in manufacturing and all that too not just product like whatever brand make the new line of green cleaners. While I’m sure there are other very good alternatives to what I use from Burt’s Bees they were bought out by Clorox not just made to make money on a new apparent trend with no real care about the actual “movement” so to say. I see the new big company green cleaners as a sort of green washing, the products themselves may be great but the manufacturing still comes from a big company and I just picture big smoke stacks with black smoke coming out. On the other hand that may be how Burt’s Bees is now manufactured and it’s really no better. I don’t know . . .

    My husband works for a company who owns a lot of other companies and they do know where their money is coming from and do shift general ideas this way or that way depending on what is selling so I guess there is a bit of hope that buying Burt’s Bees does make a statement to Clorox, in a small way at least. But it’s not like the money we spend on Burt’s Bees is earmarked to go back into Burt’s Bees. It is just one of those things that I just don’t know which way to go.

    January 10th, 2009 at 4:47 pm
    Comment by mudnessa
  11. Yeah, this is a tough issue. It reminds me of a newspaper article I read about investing in mutual funds that are marketed as socially and environmentally responsible. It turns out that many companies in these funds practice questionable environmental, social, and labor practices because there just aren’t enough totally ethical companies to create a fund. Anyway, if your broker tries to get you to invest in one of these funds, they’re not necessarily trying to deceive you, it’s just not an ethical world when it comes to large companies.

    I commend anyone who can make a life out of buying only local, ethnically produced products and services, but many people are just trying to get through to the next paycheck and will buy whatever’s cheap and available. I consider it a privilege to be able to afford more organic and green products. Maybe green continues to be “stylish” it will become more affordable for more people because of mass production?

    January 11th, 2009 at 4:41 pm
    Comment by Jess
  12. This is such a difficult question; but I tend to lean to the side of still buying Burt’s Bees or Odwalla in hopes that my decision will impact the corporations’ direction. Plus I know that the corporations owning the companies mean that more people can buy the product.
    That said, I think that the internet will continue to revolutionize small businesses and green products. Just think of the Diva Cup. I’ve never seen one in a store, only sold online. But, I believe that one day soon we’ll see them at Target.

    January 12th, 2009 at 7:10 pm
    Comment by Elizabeth
  13. [...] I love supporting small businesses, and tend to be very suspicious of “big corporate,” which is probably no big surprise to anyone. I always flinch just a little when I talk about Burt’s Bees products, even though I love their Super Shiny Shampoo and Conditioner more than any other hair care product I’ve ever tried. Burt’s Bees is no longer owned by that folksy, bearded man named Burt. Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox. [...]

    January 16th, 2009 at 2:25 pm
    Pingback by Quick Green Reads For The Weekend Volume One Hundred. | The Good Human
  14. Put vinegar into your hair as a conditioner. Dilute one part to three parts water and leave it in for three minutes while you shower. Better than Burts Bees

    February 21st, 2009 at 11:23 pm
    Comment by Susan
  15. Sorry button got pushed before I wanted it to about the vinegar. I was reading the Burt’s Bee’s conditioner comment. You’ll never believe this works until you try it. The smell goes away and your hair will feel the best ever. Do this once a week. So much cheaper than Burt’s Bee’s and you aren’t supporting Clorox. :)

    February 21st, 2009 at 11:31 pm
    Comment by Susan
  16. Wow, truly happy to have spent this morning buzzing around looking for blogs that match my mindset. Seems silly but I haven’t been able to find voices that really examine these complicated issues. What a great discussion!

    For me, Noelle and Melinda’s comments hit home. I agree that going green isn’t as simple as just buying green. And sometimes buying green isn’t even the thing to do, is it? “Buying” anything ultimately an “ungreen” activity when you look at the bare bones black and white of the issue. Or green and black, maybe…

    Anyway! I thought I’d add that part of what got us into this mess in the first place is that lack of personal care, accountability and just plain moral ethics that comes from massive organizations with a legal mandate to put profits over what is right and good. If we want to make a shift away from the power of corporations to lobby for lax regulations and put profits over people, then we must buy from smaller businesses.

    That’s not to say that I’ve accomplished that. By a long shot. But I think that on a “logical” basis this represents a sound argument against the “buying green corporate goods is a good green vote in the market” argument. I’m no economist, but perhaps we’d be better off with an economy that isn’t driven by selfish and megalomaniacal corporations. For more on that watch the documentary The Corporation, or read the book!

    Thanks for the morning thought bubbles!

    – Hope

    March 7th, 2009 at 5:44 pm
    Comment by hopealso (of hippie dippie bébé)
  17. Just for the record, Avena, not Aveda, is not owned by Johnson and Johnson. Aveda, on the other hand, is owned by Estee Lauder, though it is run as a seperate entity.

    August 30th, 2009 at 4:17 pm
    Comment by denise
  18. I know this is an old line of comments, but I wanted to make everyone aware that Burt’s Bees has gone Big Business, apparently. They have started messing with their formulas, AND they’re increasing profit by selling products in smaller quantities for the same price. I am switching, and it’s too bad, because I used to like them. But I guess the “Greed is Good” philosophy outranks the Green philosophy once again. I am so disappointed.

    March 28th, 2011 at 12:38 pm
    Comment by Linda

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Tip of the Day

If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It

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According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.


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