BurtsBeesI recently read a question that asked readers whether they like Burt’s Bees products. The first response said not since Burt’s Bees “sold out” to Clorox. That first response set the tone of the rest of the responses, most of which were trying to figure out if that statement was true.

As the responses continued, and the readers learned that, indeed, Burt’s Bees was sold in 2007 to Clorox, a bleach manufacturer no less, the responders became upset and disappointed. Many vowed never again to purchase Burt’s Bees products. 

I knew of the sale in 2007 because I had read about it but like many other such sales, where a brand’s customer loyalty may be tied to its “social-conscious” history, the sale isn’t exactly announced from the rooftops by the buyers. Why? Because most buyers know the backlash they would endure since many customers won’t be happy that a large, multi-national company is buying them out. According to an informal survey several years ago on Treehugger.com, 48 percent of customers would abandon an ethical brand if they were bought out by a multinational.

But how do you know if your favorite company has been bought out by a company which you would never support? Ahh…good question. And one that is hard to get an answer since you won’t find those little details on the packaging either. (Clever, no?)

Some company entrepreneurs look at “selling” as a necessary step to grow their business and, in their opinion, support their employees. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to Unilever in 2000. According to the buyout press release, the first paragraph states: Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever have agreed to a unique and ground-breaking combination in which Ben & Jerry’s will join forces with Unilever to create an even more dynamic, socially positive ice cream business with global reach.

So, the big question is: is it really about people or profits? What do you think? Since Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company has announced that all of its ingredients will be fair trade this year in the U.K. and by 2013 in the U.S. It probably wouldn’t have been able to do that if it didn’t get bought out by a company with deep pockets. So does the end justify the means? Companies you may or may not have known that have been sold to larger companies (or a majority stake bought by the larger company) include:

  • Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream sold to Unilever in 2000
  • Green & Black Organic Chocolate sold to Cadbury Schweppes in 2005
  • The Body Shop sold to Loreal in 2006
  • Toms of Maine sold to Colgate-Palmolive in 2006
  • Burts Bee’s sold to Clorox in 2007
  • Honest Tea sold majority stake to Coca Cola in 2008

Did you know these companies were bought? Does this matter to you? If you didn’t know, would this information change your future buying decisions?

-Megy Karydes, Founder
World Shoppe

Megy Karydes is the founder of World Shoppe, a wholesale importing company that works with artisans in South Africa and Pakistan to deisgn and develop fair trade and handmade jewelry, women’s accessories and greeting cards.  She often writes about fair trade for local and national consumer and trade press. To learn more about fair trade or World Shoppe, visit www.World-Shoppe.com.