Fran Hawthorne, author of “Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love,” dishes on some big-name companies – Published on AlterNet, by Brittany Shoot, June 18, 2012.
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 … //
… 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. (full long 3 pages text).