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.