Yesterday I attended a Tom’s of Maine press briefing on the company’s new Rivers Awareness Partnership, in which it will donate $1 million over five years to two nonprofits focusing on riparian issues.
It was a small, feel-good affair that gave American Rivers and the River Network a chance to talk about their laudable work, and it let Tom Chappell, a friendly fellow who resembles a more approachable John Kerry, describe how the grant is the outgrowth of his company’s long-held commitment to social and environmental responsibility: “Better values build better value,” etc.
One reason I went to the event is that the company’s acquisition by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006 was one of the things that led me to start this blog. I’d already become interested in corporate parentage and buyouts, but when that purchase happened, it put a real bee in my bonnet—perhaps because Tom’s was the first green brand I ever encountered, thanks to a college roommate who used the toothpaste.
Why shouldn’t the label on my Cinnamint tube be required to say, “A Colgate-Palmolive brand”? It’s a disservice to consumers, who are understandably skeptical of multinational corporations, that companies are not (and are not coerced to be) completely open about such information.
This opacity is particularly irksome when it’s companies or brands that base their appeal on progressive values that fail to volunteer this information freely. Consider Odwalla, now owned by Coca-Cola: unlike Tom’s, its website contains no disclosure or acknowledgment of its acquisition—even in the homespun “Who We Are” and “History” sections.
I felt Chappell out—not about the labeling question specifically, since that was off-topic, but about the ownership issue. I asked him whether the ability to give the rivers grant came in part from being owned by Colgate-Palmolive, and what the negatives and positives of the arrangement had been so far in the context of the company’s mission.
“They respect our values,” he replied. “They’re our biggest supporters.” And no, the grant had nothing to do with the Colgate partnership, as Chappell put it—Tom’s level of charitable giving hasn’t changed. He characterized Colgate-Palmolive as having principles similar to those of his company, and added that “if we don’t bring our values to scale, we won’t succeed.”
I hadn’t done my homework on Colgate-Palmolive before the briefing, alas, but I can tell you now that the company has been criticized for its environmental reporting, its use of animal testing, and its role years ago in polluting the Chemsol Superfund site. It gets a middle-of-the-road rating of 40 from Climate Counts, which describes it as being “at an early stage of addressing climate change,” a “poor” score of 5 from Ethiscore, and a neutral-to-negative rating from Knowmore.org.
To be fair, that’s Colgate’s record, not Tom’s. The latter company has pretty unimpeachable green credentials; indeed, it has been a leader in the sustainable-business world, and it seems—so far, at least—to be operating autonomously from its corporate parent. I still use Tom’s toothpaste. But guilt by association is all it takes for some people to stop buying your product.
As my parents always told me, be careful of the company you keep.