I buy my soap from a lady named Susannah who hand-makes it from beeswax, water and lye and nothing else. For other people, she scents it with essential oils, but when I read that essential oils are being used in such concentration that they are now entering the water and affecting marine wildlife, I asked her to make me soap without them.
She does, and I therefore have a trusted, local source for ecologically-sensitive personal care products. She does it partly for a favor, partly because I pay her, and partly because she herself is concerned with treading gently on this planet in order to help keep our species safe, secure and happy. I know I can trust her.
Because Susannah's business is small and local, she can easily provide transparency and responsiveness to customers, two of the characteristics I've written (here and here) will win over forest-green customers.
On the other hand, three businesses which had earned a certain amount of trust from green(ish) customers have recently been bought by huge corporations with no environmental credentials whatsoever. L'Oreal paid $1.4 billion for Body shop. Colgate-Palmolive bought an 84% stake in Tom's of Maine. And now Clorox, the bleach company, has bought Burt's Bees for nearly $1 billion.
Of course, the big corporations have promised to keep the green-pedigreed companies running within the operating philosophies created by their founders, but how can we know for sure? Burt's Bees was of interest to Clorox, one can only imagine, because its revenue soared from $23 million to $164 million in the last seven years, not because stockholders in mega-corporation have decided to put good citizenship before profit.
The putative good news, according to the New York Times, is that Clorox executives say "they plan to learn from the unusual business practices at Burt's Bees--many centered on environmental sustainability. Clorox, the company promises, is going green."
But, as the New York Times puts it, "many corporate leaders have sold their shareholders on green initiatives by pointing out that they help cut costs." That begs a question: what happens when there is a decision that pits green against costs, and it's happening inside a gigantic black box that eco-conscious customers can't see into?
Transparency might be one way a company like Clorox could get over this hump. Some way in which consumers could examine operations to be sure that they are getting what they are promised. Some way of short-circuiting cynicism about corporate spin. Some way of proving that Burt's Bees is actually sticking to its triple bottom line.
To be sure, it's a good thing that sustainable practices are going mainstream, but companies like Clorox face plenty of skepticism and customers have good reason. One NPR host joked that buying Burt's Bees gives Clorox the chance to convince us all to smear bleach all over our lips.
So the next step for big business, after buying into sustainability, is finding a way to keep customers convinced that they aren't just getting greenwashed. Till then, I'm getting my soap from Susannah.
Photo of Burt's Bees founders Roxanne Quimby and Burt Shavitz in 2001 by Bob Rowe and courtesy of NYTimes.Com.