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Cover Story

The Bleach & the Bees

Those humble organic brands are not what they seem.

By Andrea Whitfill
Posted // March 25,2009 - My first introduction to natural, organic and eco-friendly products stems back to the early ’90s, when I stumbled upon Burt’s Bees lip balm at an independently owned health food store in the heart of Westport, Kansas City, Mo. Before the eyesore invasion of ’98, when Starbucks frothed its way into the neighborhood, leading to its ultimate demise, Westport was the kind of ’hood I still yearn for. It was saturated with historically preserved, hip and funky, mom & pop-type establishments, delivering their goods people to people.

I was surprised more recently when I saw Burt’s Bees products everywhere—in grocery stores, drug stores, corner bodegas and big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. I thought to myself, fantastic; the marketplace is working, and good for Burt. He has made his mark, and the demand for his products is on the rise. Needless to say, I was shocked when I recently found out that Burt’s Bees is now owned by Clorox, a massive corporate company that has historically cared very little about the environment, but whose main industry is directly associated with harmful chemicals, some of which require warning labels for legal sale. Clorox—yes, that’s right—the bleach company with an estimated revenue of $ 4.8 billion that employs nearly 7,600 workers (now bees) and sells products like Liquid-Plumr, Pine-Sol and Armor All, a far cry from the origins of Burt. I now understood. The reason Burt’s Bees products were everywhere was precisely because they now had a powerful corporation in the driver’s seat, with big marketing budgets and existing distribution systems.

The story of Burt is a charming one gone bad. Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper in Dexter, Maine, lived an extremely humble life selling honey in pickle jars from the back of his pickup truck and resided in the wilderness inside a turkey coop without running water or electricity.

In the summer of 1984, Shavitz was driving down the road and spotted a hitchhiker who needed a lift to the post office. He pulled over and picked up Roxanne Quimbya 34-year-old woman who eventually became Shavitz’s lover and business partner. Quimby started helping him tend to the beehives, and that eventually led to the all natural-inspired health-care products made with Shavitz’s honey and the birth of Burt’s Bees products.

Burt’s story and very powerful narrative gave Burt’s Bees products their legitimacy in my book. Creative entrepreneurs and knowledgeable consumers together working their magic; not the results of a corporate behemoth out to dominate the marketplace.

However, Quimby and Shavitz’s relationship became “sticky” in the late ’90s, for reasons unclear, yet probably having little to do with honey. Their romantic break up carried over to the split of their business partnership as well. In 1999, Quimby bought out Shavitz’s shares of the company for a small six-figure sum. Quimby then continued, becoming phenomenally successfully and growing sales to $43.5 million by 2002. In 2003, a private equity firm, AEA investors, purchased 80 percent of Burt’s Bees from Quimby, with her retaining a 20 percent share and a seat on the board. In 2006, John Replogle, the former general manager of Unilever’s skin-care division became CEO and president of Burt’s Bees. The company was sold to Clorox in late October 2007 for $925 million.

Quimby was paid more than $300 million for her stake in Burt’s Bees. At the time of that deal, Shavitz reportedly demanded more money, and Quimby agreed to pay him $4 million. Quimby now refurbishes fancy, swank homes in Florida, travels the world and buys massive chunks of land in her free time. Our bearded man Shavitz, on the other hand, now 73 and unchanged, continues to reside amidst nature in his now-expanded turkey coop, which still remains absent of electricity or running water.

breyers_benjerry.jpgThe Burt’s Bees story is disconcerting. I vaguely remembered long ago that one of my favorite ice cream products, Ben & Jerry’s, sold out. Unilever (which also owns Breyers), the giant conglomerate with an estimated market cap of $50 billion and close to 174,000 employees, bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 for $326 million.

I began to wonder about the other products I liked, trusted and respected for their independence and their social responsibility. How many were really owned by big corporations, who were going out of their way to hide the link between the big corporate company with the small, socially responsible brand? It didn’t take long for my list of disappointments to grow and grow. Upon first meeting someone, I can usually tell quite a lot about them by the contents of their bathroom. The brand I see most often behind medicine cabinets of people I consider to be environmentally conscious is Tom’s of Maine. What Tom’s says to me about the person is that they are willing to spend a little bit of extra cash in order to take proactive steps to help green the Earth.

colgate_toms.jpgWell, no more. My bathroom assessments will never be the same. Tom’s of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a massive, tanklike company with an estimated 36,000 employees and revenue of approximately $11.4 billion. Its big products include Ajax, Anbesol and Speed Stick.

I am only left to wonder, is Trader Joe’s, popularly known to showcase Tom’s of Maine in its hygiene department, just as much in the dark about all of this as I have been? Or is Joe’s simply another conduit for big corporate products? As my curiosity grew, I took a little field trip to the grocery store with one of my friends to be a “brand anthropologist.”

“Let’s get to the bottom of this,” I said, aiming to check out all of the brands that I and countless other good consumers were buying in our efforts to support grass-roots business and not corporate behemoths. Little did I know how deep the hole was going to be, and in some cases, how hard to find out who owns what.

Thinking Dairy
In the dairy section sit many flavors of Stoneyfield Farm Yogurt. I knew its socially conscious CEO, Gary Hirshberg, had created major organic brand recognition to become the No. 1 seller of organic yogurt in the United States, but since then Danone, the French conglomerate (which also owns Brown Cow), acquired a majority holding in Stoneyfield. This is the same Danone that had to recall large quantities of its yogurt in 2007 after it was found to contain unsafe levels of dioxins. (In an interesting twist, the still-active Hirshberg sits on the board of Dannon USA. Unlike most of the early entrepreneurs, who took the dough and left the scene, Hirshberg is still involved. ) Meanwhile, I learned that Horizon Organic milk was bought out by the largest diary company in the United States, Dean Foods Co., in 2005.

Juicy Profits
Next I ventured to the juice section. Drinking Odwalla juices was an expensive habit I had justified for years because of its healthy California brand. The ubiquitous refrigerators in thousands of stores should have given it away that Odwalla wasn’t the small company it once was. It is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca- Cola bought the company, back in 2001 for $181 million, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed OJ that had made Odwalla famous and popular among the healthy set. With its massive distribution system, fresh squeezed wouldn’t last the days and weeks the juices are in transit or on the shelf.

Not to be outdone (although it took it a while), Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers, the brand we are told is the “brand we can trust,” grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After the fall—R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.Turns out that Coca-Cola also owns Glaceau, the company once known for its “fresh new approach to bottled water that is inspired by nature and enhanced by science.” Glaceau is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy—all bottled waters that are adorably marketed and loaded with sugar. It’s no wonder Coca-Cola was slapped with a lawsuit in 2006 for making deceptive and unsubstantiated health claims in its Vitamin Water marketing strategies; they are selling glorified sugar water. As for bottled water, egads! That’s a whole article in and of itself. The scourge of bottled water, of course, is an environmental disaster on many levels, as corporations have moved in to take control of local water supplies, while some of the same companies and their mega advertising budgets have created a giant market for bottled water, with enormous waste from plastic bottles and giant carbon foot prints as water is shipped over many thousands of miles from Fiji for example, or Italy, when pretty much no bottled water is needed. Frequently, tap water is of higher quality and more closely tested than bottled water.

And as Michael Blanding notes on AlterNet, “In fact, many times bottled water is tap water. Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies. The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani; Pepsi, which produces Aquafina; and Nestle, which produces several “local” brands, including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga. Both Coke and Pepsi exclusively use tap water for their sources, while Nestle uses tap water in some brands.

kellogs_kashi.jpgThe Breakfast Nook
Over in the breakfast aisle, my friend became apoplectic when we learned that the “super healthy” Kashi cereals, the favorites of millions of healthy breakfast eaters, was bought in July 2000 for an “undisclosed sum” by Kellogg’s, the 12th-largest company in North American food sales, according to Food Processing. I picked up a box of Kashi’s “Go Lean Crunch” and searched every word; not one mention of the fact that Kellogg’s owns them. That change was really below the radar.
In 2004, Kraft Foods, known for processed cheeses and Kool-Aid, bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes. According to The New York Times, “Many of the alternative cereal brands are owned by larger companies, including Kellogg and General Mills.”

“Cereals, like milk, are one of the primary entrance points for use of organics,” said Lara Christenson of Spins, a market research group for the natural products industry, “which is pretty closely tied to children—health concerns, keeping pesticides, especially antibiotics, out of the diets of children.

These large firms wanted to get a foothold in the natural and organic marketplace. Because of the mindset of consumers, branding of these products has to be very different than traditional cereals.”

These corporate connections are often kept quiet. “There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company,” Christenson said. “I don’t want to say it’s manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It’s very purposely done.” A little more digging shows that General Mills owns Cascadian Farm; Barbara’s Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company, which is owned by a private investment firm in England; Mother’s makes it clear that it is owned by Quaker Oats (which is owned by PepsiCo); Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of that company.

The Sweet Tooth
After the Kashi news, I wondered what was next? I didn’t have to go any farther than the organic chocolate aisle of my favorite deli to find Green and Black’s organic chocolate was taken over in 2005 by Schweppes, the 10th-largest company in North American packagedfood sales. And even more surprising to chocolate lovers is that Dagoba Chocolate, which had a little cult chocolate following for a while, is—surprise, surprise— owned by Hershey Foods.

There seems to be an apt analogy between the huge growth in the “naturalization” of packaged goods in grocery stores and supermarket aisles and the massive transformation of organic fresh foods. Organic farming began as a grass-roots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies.

Furthermore, when the government certifies food as “organic,” it has nothing to do with the original values of locally grown produce, workers being treated fairly, etc. So it may cheer some to know that on the East Coast, McDonald’s has served fair-trade-certified Newman’s Own organic coffee in stores, while others may cringe at the words of Lee Scott, former CEO of Walmart, when he said, “We are particularly excited about organic food, the fastest-growing category in all of food.” “What’s important to keep in mind is that these big corporations are getting into organics not because they have doubts about their prior business practices or doubts about chemical, industrial agriculture,”
said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

“They’re getting in because they want to make a lot of money—they want to make it fast.” He said the companies couldn’t care less about “family farmers making the transition to organic farms.”

What does this all mean? One conclusion it is easy to come to is that big food companies and the stores and supermarkets that deliver their goods have stretched and abused descriptions of food until they are sometimes almost meaningless, and consumers believe that they are getting more benefits than they actually are. Consumers “walk down the aisle in the grocery stores’ health and beauty area, and they’re confronted with ‘natural’ at every turn,” says Daniel Fabricant, vicepresident for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. “We just don’t want to see the term misused any longer.”

On the other hand, Roger Cowe, a writer on business and corporate responsibility, states: “If you want to change what people consume on a grand scale, you have to penetrate mass markets. And you can’t do that if you’re a small, specialist brand stuck in the organic or whole-food niche, even if that means you are on supermarket shelves. It is a familiar dilemma: Stay pure and have a big impact on a small scale, or compromise and have a small impact on a grand scale.”

Some think that socially responsible business sellers don’t lose it all when selling out. Both Craig Sams from Green and Black chocolate and the late Anita Roddick from the Body Shop— which was sold to L’Oreal/Nestle, one of the most vilified of multinational companies—have said that they believe that an acquired ethical company can influence its new parent to improve its corporate behavior.

Others are not so positive about this turn of events. Judy Wickes from the Social Venture Network describes corporate takeovers of socially responsible businesses as “a threat to democracy when wealth and power are concentrated into a few hands.” And David Korten, in his book, When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business “should be human scale— not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people—always with a bias to smaller is better.”

It is clear that so-called organic brands are a rapidly growing portion of the consumer dollar, and that every major food corporation has invested deeply in buying these already-established brands.

Corporate marketing campaigns have been fooling us to trust that the niche brands continue to be small, environmentally conscious businesses that combine ecologically sound practices with a political agenda to put products out on the market under a business model of “the Greater Good.” In fact, they are frequently cogs in the giant corporate wheel. I like to refer to this “other” business model as “We’ve Been Had.” It is time for us, the consumers, to question how much the ownership and neglectful marketing of these “pseudo” responsible brands warrant crossing them off our shopping list. And it is time to find products more in tune with our values, which include thinking small. At least until they, too, get bought out by some large conglomerate.

Andrea Whitfill is a freelance writer residing in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her story originally appeared on on March 17, 2009.

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Posted // March 30,2009 at 12:49 I hope City Weekly gets sued by Clorox for using their bottle on the cover without permission.


Posted // March 30,2009 at 16:31 - My gracious........ how adult !!!


Posted // March 30,2009 at 09:52 Who made up the rule that a story has to written by a local reporter in order to make it into CW and have any gravitas? That's outrageous! That's like saying I can't enjoy British Blues Rock because the blues is part of American heritage, even though the British might do it better! And, if nothing else, some of the posts on this story point to a need to limit the actual number of words coming out of someone's head. If this story is "drivel," Chameleon, why did you lose your mind over it and start writing in a manner that would have killed Russell Crowe's character in "A Beautiful Mind?" Do you always respond so, so, so verbalacioulsy over "drivel?"


Posted // March 30,2009 at 10:08 - Tried to explain this to "Geez" but it was lost. I was cleaning my garage, came across a few old copies of the Weekly, one of which included the Organic Sham. Tossed them all into the recycle bin and the following day I read this story here. For whatever reason, it bothered me. I have always despised plagiarism. I thought that the similarities in the two stories far exceeded coincidental content, got a hankering to say so and posted that here. I've made an ass of myself with the comment to Jerre and I'd like to apologize again for my words toward her, but I still stand by my assertion that the Weekly just reprinted a story that was taken from another that was originally published here only two years ago. And I still say that this new story stinks. It is bad writing, period. Normally, I'm not moved to write comments about stories published in the Weekly though I have complimented Stephen Dark on a couple of his. He's a fine writer.


Posted // March 29,2009 at 22:03 I appreciated the story, I am surprised to say. So thanks for picking it up from out of state and publishing it. I know it sounds weird, but I like information that comes from both inside AND outside state lines. Crazy, right?


Posted // March 29,2009 at 13:31 Chameleon, yes, this story does revisit some of Jamaine Batson's premises, but Batson's story ran Dec. 7, 2006. Does that bar us from further exploration of the subject? We haven't received pitches from Batson or any other local writers offering to update or expand on the subject, and we are always on the lookout for writers with compelling ideas (see our Invitation to Freelance Writers under Contact Us on our Website). Bottom line: This is an important subject to many of our readers and that's why we chose publish the story. Reddog, given your concern for unemployed local writers, please send them my way with their story ideas. Make sure you direct them to me, Jerre Wroble, at John Saltas is the founder of this publication and a columnist but had no hand in selecting this story.


Posted // March 30,2009 at 08:54 - Didn't realize that there was a second page - my bad and I apologize. I am very glad to see that you did not remove the comments. I just posted a nice explanation for Geez, but it looks like it didn't apply. This new format is nice but there are bugs in it. This subject warrants further exploration, I suppose, but there was a lot more to this one than that. Hope next week's story is better than this drivel.


Posted // March 30,2009 at 08:12 - Jerre, That you removed applicable, appropriate and decent comments pertaining to this story is deplorable, especially since it seems to have been done in the interest of sparing you some embarrassment. I contend that this writer did directly steal the idea as well as some content from the Weekly. The fact that you removed the proof tells me that you saw it, too. Not only is this story poorly written garbage, geared toward the edification of the writers ego rather than informing the reader, it is stolen from another source. And the saddest part, perhaps, is that this story was the best writing you could find to publish this week. Let's hope you make as good an editor as you do censor.


Posted // March 28,2009 at 11:41 Amazing how many bitter, angry folks with an agenda live here in SLC. I moved here six months ago, and these comments make me want to get the you-know-what out of here. NOT ONE of you has done anything other than pontificate your own need to regurgitate articulate-sounding words. These are not reviews; these are cathartic experiences! Get a life, folks. I read both articles - there's a commonality in the subject matter, but that's where the comparison ends. There's nothing wrong with two writers having their own say about a topical issue. Otherwise, only the first commentary about the Stimulus Package would have been 'fair game' -- right? Anything else would have been plagiarism? What I suspect is that one of you is the author of the SLC piece, and is jealous that it didn't make the national media. Ms. Whitfill's piece started at the national level, and was picked up by this paper. Boo Hoo for you, SLC author. I've got an idea for you -- why don't you turn your angst into something positive and try to get the national media interested in something you write, rather than crying over Ms. Whitfill's ability to do so.


Posted // March 30,2009 at 08:58 - That's right, Geez. Prove how illuminated you are by positing that the people of SLC are bitter, angry and plagued by agenda by lumping them all into the same pot based on one person's opinion. If that's how you normally function, you'll probably do very well here.


Posted // March 30,2009 at 08:46 - Geez, it must be difficult to find yourself in a new land that houses the only bitter, angry, agenda plagued people in the states. Knowing that Utah is home to over 2.5 million people might make it easier to accept that I am but one of them and that, surely, they are not all just like me. So stick around if you'd like, but if you'd like to go, that's fine with me. There are too many people moving here anymore. As far as regurgitating "articulate-sounding" words, well, seems to me that this act is more commonly known as speaking, or, when applied differently, writing. That you consider usage of words with more than two syllables to be pontification speaks more toward your own vocabulary than any need of mine to sound smart. I've always had a problem with plagiarists. I don't consider taking another persons work, spinning it a bit differently and passing it off as your own to be flattering. It is theft. If it were only that there was commonality in the subject matter and not evidence of one writer simply skimming the work of another, that would be fine. Many subjects deserve varied takes, but this was more than that. I've been cleaning out my garage lately. While filtering through junk, I came across a few old copies of the Weekly, one of which contained the Organic Sham story. That went, along with the others, into the recycle bin. One day later, I read Andrea's story here. I looked for the Organic Sham on the web, found it at a web site that Andrea referenced, noticed the incredible similarity between the two stories and posted my findings here, where, the new editor saw fit to remove them. I am not the writer you suspect, but I do write, which is why this bothered me. I will say one thing about this national media thing you're touting: have you any idea how easy it is to publish at Alternet? Take a look sometime - you'll see that they accept myriad work from authors both professional and completely amateur. It's not a national publication, it's on the internet, just like the Weekly. So I suppose that you'd consider Salt Lake City's Weekly to be a national publication, as well? Not sure why my observation would trouble you. I was respectful and feel that I had a good reason to post here.