Ben. Jerry. Tom. Burt. They are icons of the ethical-shopping world, the patriarchs (there are no famous matriarchs) of the small crop of natural products that made the leap from the health food niche to supermarkets and chain drugstores in the last couple of decades: Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream; Tom’s of Maine toothpaste; Burt’s Bees lip balm and other personal-care products.
Burt Shavitz, the reclusive Maine beekeeper who co-founded his eponymous business thirty-one years ago, died on July 5 at age eighty, apparently living until the end in his famous turkey coop (albeit a 400-foot coop with a radio and a refrigerator).
Consumers who try to avoid unpronounceable artificial ingredients rightly love these little companies and their products. The original Burt’s lip balm, for instance, contains beeswax, vitamin E, and a smidgeon of peppermint oil. The night cream—conflict-of-interest alert: I use it!—is made of bee pollen, shea butter, and royal jelly, a honey-bee secretion.
Yet the reason we know about Ben, Jerry, Tom, and Burt is less because their names are on their companies’ logos, than because they sold those companies to huge multinationals in recent years. Unilever, maker of the chemical-laden Knorr soup mixes, acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. Colgate-Palmolive bought Tom’s in 2006. And in 2007, the Clorox Company, whose chlorine bleach is despised by environmental activists for damaging sewers and aquatic life, took over Burt’s beehives.
Still, it’s been hard for environmental and social activists to shed years of distrust of the very companies that now own the beloved eco-pioneers. Were the conglomerates just trying to purchase a sheen of greenwashing on the cheap? Were they co-opting the original brands? Under Colgate, for instance, important details about the ingredients disappeared from Tom’s labels, replaced by advertising blather. And bloggers claimed that the toothpaste tasted more artificial.
“You see a number of the iconic socially-responsible brand names from the nineties and early 2000s having been acquired by large companies,” said Steven D. Lydenberg, the chief investment officer of Domini Social Investments, one of the big ethical-investment firms. “There are people who are very concerned about how to preserve the model.”
The story of Burt’s Bees is particularly complex.
Burt Shavitz was just tending bees and selling a little honey when he picked up a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby in 1984. Gradually, they expanded Burt’s beeswax into a $3 million line of lip balm, lotions, soaps, and shampoos. But the pair, who were lovers as well as business partners, split up in the early 1990s, with Quimby buying out Shavitz for about $130,000. (Admittedly embarrassed, she ultimately gave him a further $4 million after she sold most of her stake in the business in 2003 for $141.6 million to a private equity firm, which then re-sold it to Clorox for $913 million.) Publicly, the Quimby-Shavitz relationship has wavered between polite and bitter.
Ironically, for all that loyal fans might fear that Clorox would pollute Burt’s, the change seems to have gone the other way. Since acquiring the lip balm-maker, Clorox has initiated a line of plant-based “natural” cleaning products endorsed by the Sierra Club.
But don’t expect the Clorox C-suite to suddenly throw out all of its bleach and start installing wind farms.
Most likely, neither Burt’s Bees nor Clorox will dramatically alter each other’s corporate culture or strategy. Rather, Clorox made both of its decisions—to buy Burt’s and to sell its own natural products—because management realized the potential size of the socially responsible market and wanted a piece of it. As ethical consumers, we’re not going away, we have money, and Big Retail needs us.
Perhaps that knowledge will help Burt Shavitz rest in peace.
About the Author
Fran Hawthorne is the author of the award-winning book Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love.