January 6, 2008

Burt's Bees owner goes karma-neutral

From today's NYT story on the sale of Burt's Bees to Clorox for $913 million: “I feel the fact that I was able to sell the company accelerated the process of land conservation in terms of what I could do,” says [Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt's Bees]. “So if there is any negative karma, I’m neutral.”

Neutrality? Is that the best we can aspire to these days? With Colgate now owning a majority stake of Tom's of Maine, Unilever absorbing Ben and Jerry's, Odwalla swallowed up by Coke, Stonyfield eaten by Dannon, and so on and so forth... it feels like an awful lot of small, environmentally responsible businesses have sold their independence to the highest bidder.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan has an interesting discussion of small vs. big organic farms; the owner of organic pioneer Cascadian Farm, now a division of General Mills, argues that he can have a broader impact as part of a large corporation. And for sure, Clorox claims that it wants to learn from sustainable practices at Burt's Bees in order to make the larger corporation greener. But that impact is also diluted, as Pollan points out, because larger companies, by their very nature, must do things that go against organic principles. Being less bad isn't the same as being good.

Meanwhile, the writers of Cradle to Cradle propose an alternative to karma neutrality: business practices that have a positive environmental impact. As an example, they cite a carpet manufacturer for whom they designed a product with no toxic components, either in the fibers or the processing. When the company began to manufacture the new carpet, they found that the water coming out of the factory was actually cleaner than the water going in. Business boomed, former hazmat storage areas became additional workspace, and the company's impact became entirely positive. Sound nice? Sadly, this isn't going to happen anytime soon for Clorox, because their primary product is a toxic chemical destined for the world's water supply. Maybe they can use the Brita filters they also manufacture to clean up their own mess.

No comments: