Go to the Burt’s Bees website and you get a folksy tale about a couple of Maine hippies befriending fuzzy insects and philosophizing about contributing to “The Greater Good.”

A closeup of Burt's Bees Hand Salve. | Photo credit: Mr. TinDC, via Flickr | CC-BY-ND 2.0 A closeup of Burt’s Bees Hand Salve. | Photo credit: Mr. TinDC, via Flickr | CC-BY-ND 2.0

Go to the Clorox Bleach website and you get a long line of defensive arguments about how bleach is actually not that bad for the environment.

I can’t think of two more dissimilar brands, but they do have one thing in common: they’re both owned by The Clorox Company, a multinational corporation best known for its chemical-based cleaning products.

In fact, Clorox acquired Burt’s Bees back in 2007. But there’s a good reason that acquisitions like this aren’t common knowledge: many Fortune 500 companies are buying up “natural” brands and intentionally keeping quiet about it.

With more and more consumers around the world—and Millenials in particular—looking to buy products that match their concerns about health, nutrition, the environment, or ethical working conditions, businesses are realizing the value of purchasing a “natural” reputation.

Here are 12 examples of natural brands that have been bought up:

Natural Brand Owned By
1 Burt’s Bees The Clorox Company
2 Tom’s of Maine Colgate Palmolive
3 The Body Shop L’Oreal
4 Cascadian Farm General Mills
5 Lära Bar General Mills
6 Annie’s Homegrown General Mills
7 Bear Naked Kellogg’s
8 Kashi Kellogg’s
9 Silk Dean Foods
10 Odwalla Coca-Cola Company
11 Honest Tea Coca-Cola Company
12 Naked Juice PepsiCo

 

There’s something compelling about buying from small, dedicated family businesses that gets lost when big corporations take over. But besides the experience of buying small and personal, is corporate take-over such a bad thing? Here are some of the pros and cons:

The Positives:

1) Increased availability of natural products.

Big companies have the clout and distribution expertise to make niche products mainstream, and therefore available to more buyers. When the Coca-Cola Company acquired Honest Tea in 2011, Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman stayed on to oversee a massive growth in sales, from availability in 15,000 retail outlets before the investment to over 100,000 today. (But by Mr. Goldman’s own admission, it’s a complicated relationship.)

2) Higher environmental and social standards for all.

Following the acquisition of Burt’s Bees, Clorox paired up with the Sierra Club in 2008 to launch Green Works, a line of environmentally friendly house-cleaning products, and it is sticking with the brand despite low sales recently. Green Works still has its critics, but it’s a step up from your regular, chemical-laden cleaners.

3) Operating at scale should make natural products cheaper.

Bigger production means lower costs, which means lower prices, right?

Probably not, in this case. For one, most large corporations are publicly traded and accountable to shareholders looking for a high return. Also, a corporation undoubtedly bought a natural brand in the first place because it already knew that consumers were willing to pay more for it. So those higher prices are likely here to stay.

The Downsides:

1) It’s sneaky advertising.

When I buy a product that espouses certain values, I expect all of my dollars to go to a company that holds those values—not to contribute to a business behemoth focused on the bottom line. I find it disingenuous that nowhere on the products themselves do these 12 brands identify their corporate ownership; it’s up to the consumer to find the information on their websites, usually buried in a small-font FAQ section.

Worse still, many of the corporations owning these natural brands actively lobby for policies that are decidedly anti-nature. For instance, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s are among the companies that donated millions in 2012 against efforts in California to label genetically modified organisms (GMO).

2) Corporations may not uphold the original standards of natural brands.

The non-profit research group Cornucopia Institute has called out several brands for cutting corners after they were acquired by corporations. The Institute reported on GMO grains and pesticide residues in Kashi cereal; the chemical carageenan in Tom’s of Maine toothpaste; and inorganic manufacturing processes in Silk soymilk, among others.

Other brands have quietly changed their products’ formulas, presumably to reduce costs. For instance, many consumers of Cascadian Farm’s Purely O’s were livid when the cereal’s sugar content was tripled and corn was added, without any notice.

And still others have made some questionable expansion choices. Under Coca-Cola’s watch, Honest Tea has developed a Keurig K-Cup version of its product, which uses unrecyclable and excessive plastic packaging. It’s great that Keurig now has an organic, fair trade tea option, but it this really a decision that the 100% independent Honest Tea Company would have made? I have to wonder.

3) The term “natural” continues to lose meaning.

Unlike “organic,” which has a legal definition under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, natural” has no real meaning. It’s generally used for products not containing artificial ingredients, but is says nothing about whether these ingredients are GMO or were produced using artificial inputs, like synthetic pesticides. So it’s easily manipulated to trick consumers.

And companies know this. General Mills is a particular offender: it took a lawsuit for the company to remove the “natural” label from products containing artificial ingredients.

That doesn’t mean that small brands are necessarily more honest; anyone can abuse the “natural” label. But many natural foods companies are founded by concerned consumers precisely because information about products is so hard to get from corporations.

The Bottom Line

So can we still trust these natural brands after they’ve been bought up?

  • Boycotting these brands is not necessarily the solution. Many remain independently run and committed to their founding principles. The last message that we as consumers want to send to corporations is that we don’t care about the products we buy or the people who make them.
  • Research your favorite brands, starting with the “Who Owns Organic” infographic. If they have a corporate connection that you don’t agree with, write and tell them!

Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.