I was just reading about Porsche buying a controlling stake in Volkswagen when someone sent me this link to Jalopnik’s Automotive Family Tree. Since one of my pet consumerism peeves is how difficult it is to know who ultimately owns the brands we buy, I love such maps of corporate genealogy. Enjoy!
In October I did a post about a chart mapping who owns whom in the world of corporate organics. Now it looks like Michigan State prof Dr. Phil Howard has revamped his graphic for Good magazine. Thanks to BoingBoing for pointing me to this.
Miss me? I haven’t been neglecting you, I’ve just been away. It’s always refreshing to leave the States for a little while and rinse off all that America über Alles. This time it was Venice, where Mr. Wallet Mouth and I just had a romantic getaway to celebrate our last days as a twosome. (In less than three months, we will have another Mouth to feed.)
The city of canals has always been a tourists’ mecca, so I didn’t really expect any mind-altering shifts in perspective. Nonetheless, between our many helpings of gelato (baby needs calcium!) and during our meanders through countless piazzas and ever-narrower streets, a few blog-worthy moments surfaced.
One was encountering this graffito. (OK, I feel slightly self-conscious whipping out the rarely used singular form of “graffiti,” but hey, that’s what it was.) Anyway, it warmed my heart to see that some kindred spirit out there shares my obsession and outrage over the opaqueness of corporate parentage. It almost made me want to add a footnote (pun intended) suggesting No Sweat sneakers as an alternative.
Later, we happened upon this store—sadly, after it had closed for the day. Apparently everything it sells is fair trade, made by artisans all over the world (and there were some neat things inside; my eye was caught by a pair of Mongolian-made slippers with elvish upward-curving pointy tips). The fact that all the wares are fair trade is remarkable by itself, but what really struck me were shop’s appearance—nice, spacious, and emanating a Real Store vibe—and its location: right by the Rialto Bridge, one of the more touristy parts of Venice. It would be the equivalent of having a fair-trade shop in Fishermans Wharf, which I find hard to imagine.
Finally, look at the vegetarian and vegan check boxes on this canister of Pringles. Why don’t we have those on American Pringles? (At least I think we don’t; it’s been a long time since I’ve bought them.)
No doubt because Europe is kilometers ahead of us on the food-labeling front...
(And yes, sigh, I know Pringles are not good for baby. But Mr. Wallet Mouth claims he simply could not resist their Pringley goodness while on vacation!)
Curious if that organic product on your shelf is owned by a mega-corporation or an independent business? Check out Dr. Phil Howard’s web page, which has a number of enlightening charts showing who owns whom. Howard, of Michigan State University, is doing some interesting work on the relationships between people, food, and agricultural systems.
Make sure to hit the “more graphics” link to see visual representations of brand acquisitions and introductions by the top 25 food processors in North America, as well as a chart of major independent organic companies and their brands. (I was happy to see that the owner of Panda Puffs, an embarrassing breakfast-cereal addiction of mine, is on that last one.)
OK, perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic, but that’s how I feel about Naked Juice. My annoyance can best be communicated by an email exchange I recently had with Naked’s customer service (slightly edited for length and clarity):
I just learned that Naked Juice was bought by PepsiCo
last year. Why isn’t that fact disclosed on your packaging—or at the
very least, on your website? Such opacity doesn’t jibe with your “Nothing to hide” slogan.
Naked Juice is a proud member of the PepsiCo family—we don’t hide that fact and if you flat-out asked us if we were an
independent company, we would have told you the exact same thing. When
we say we have nothing to hide, we mean it.
Other than providing
us with the natural advantages of being part of a larger company (more
resources, including juice knowledge from the folks at Tropicana,
better buying power, etc.) we still are the same ’ol Naked Juice
We have the same
spirit and wit we’ve always had and our focus continues to be to
provide the best 100% fruit smoothies available.... We’ve never felt the need to spend a lot of energy
shouting about what company owns us (there have been several), as it
doesn’t determine who we are or what we stand for.
the opportunity to explain, Bronwyn. Please be assured that we haven’t
changed—we’re still the same little juice company in Azusa,
California. And, as we say in Azusa, remember to always drink Naked.
Not telling = hiding. Not only are you not shouting; you’re not even whispering. You do not tell people on your packaging, and you don’t tell people on your website. How can the “Our Story” of your website be complete without a mention of this extremely important part of your company story? It’s not even in the FAQ. How are consumers supposed to know these things? Call the company 800 number before buying a bottle of juice?
Frankly, I feel lied to, and that’s reason enough for me not to buy your product, even if you do operate with the same spirit you had when you were a little business (and clearly some transparency has been lost). It’s all about disclosure....
I encourage you to tell the Naked bigwigs to change the disclosure policy. If you changed it, I would buy your delicious juice again.
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.
In July I blogged about finding out that Kashi had been bought by Kellogg. Though the customer-service rep I spoke with went to great pains to reassure me that the buyout didn’t represent a betrayal of Kashi’s ideals, red flags still popped up in my mind.
Oftentimes when small, ethically committed companies are acquired by mega-corporations, their sustainable ethos is lost or watered down. For example, ever since Horizon Organics was bought by Dean Foods, in 2003, it has faced criticism over the industrial-scale dairies that joined its milk suppliers.
But I don’t think buyouts are always necessarily bad. One company I’m watching with interest is chocolate maker Dagoba. When it was acquired by Hershey’s in 2006, Dagoba founder Frederick Schilling stated on Slashfood that his decision “was based on my
desire and passion to make change in the industry and assist in the
transformation.” Far from compromising its ideals, the merger would enable Dagoba to “reach out to thousands, if not
millions more farmers than we could have on our own.”
Is Schilling right? What about when his contract expires and the brand goes on without him? Only time will tell.
Another interesting example is yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm. Since 2004, 80 percent of its shares have been owned by Groupe Danone. Stonyfield has been criticized for decreasing the percentage of organic products it offers, but it’s
still doing good things. It donates 10 percent of its profits to
environmental projects, it offsets all of its C02 emissions, and as I
mentioned in a recent post, it funds Climate Counts. CorpWatch even quotes a company spokesperson as saying that Danone “is
asking us to help them change their operations worldwide to organic
Indeed, a compelling argument can be made that large corporations, because of their size, have the capability to generate more net good in the world than small ones. But I still gravitate toward the little guys, such as family-owned yogurt maker Straus.
I’m definitely interested in continuing to explore this issue, though. If any readers have any good resources on this topic, shoot them my way.
And whatever happened to that Grape-Nuts clone known as 7 in the Morning cereal, made by Kashi,
a company with a decidedly more eco-friendly image than Kraft or Safeway? I used to buy it,
but it quietly disappeared some time ago.
Time to call another 800 number...
A Kashi customer-service rep named Phil told me that the cereal had been discontinued, because it didn’t have adequate consumer response.
“That’s too bad,” I told him. “I loved it. And now the closest thing to it is Grape-Nuts, which is owned by Altria, which, you know, is Philip Morris. And I don’t really want to give them my money.”
“Well, you should know that we’re owned by Kellogg now.”
“Really?” I asked. “For how long?”
“About six years.”
I must have sounded crestfallen, because Phil proceeded to let loose with a slew of reassurances: “We operate separately from them. They’re in Michigan, we’re in La Jolla. They let us do our own thing, they respect our core values as a lifestyle company, and we’re not very involved with them at all.
“I mean, they do make some money from us. But we’re allowed to make our own decisions. We are a natural company. All our ingredients are manufactured in the U.S., all our products have our seven whole grains, and we offer three organic products. We are a natural company, and we’re going to keep it that way. Can I send you some coupons?”
And so the plot thickens. Ruminations on the independence of smaller companies bought by giant companies to come...
Yesterday I woke up with the sinking suspicion that the breakfast cereal I was about to eat contained toxins from China. (I just can’t seem to get off the topic of food lately.) I think it was an aftereffect of hearing Michael Pollan on radio show City Arts & Lectures last month. He related an anecdote about a food producer who had to order flax seeds from China after a bad crop in the U.S. The seeds arrived quite dirty, and the guy decided to test the soil that was collected from the cleaning process. The result? Heavy metals galore.
So before pouring my Grape-Nuts onto my Straus yogurt, I called Post’s 800 number and asked whether any of the cereal’s ingredients were non-domestic, and if so, where they came from. Nope, they’re all domestic, and the company has a policy of listing any foreign ingredients on the box.
Well, that’s a relief. But I still feel uneasy about having Grape-Nuts on my shelf, because Post is such a huge company. It’s gotta be evil in some way, right? In fact, Post isn’t even a real company anymore. It’s owned by Kraft, which is a subsidiary of Altria, formerly known as Philip Morris. Definitely some evil to be found in there.
Truth be told, having Grape-Nuts on my shelf is a bit of a fluke; I usually buy Safeway’s less-expensive version of the cereal, which bears the unfortunate name of Crunchy Nuggets. But Safeway is also huge. How do I know it’s any less evil than Kraft/Altria?
Who knows, but the folks at Grass Commons, an Oregon nonprofit, are asking the right questions and framing the issues intelligently. I’m very excited about a new, community-driven project of theirs, Hooze.org—and not just because it has an owl in its logo (though as anyone who's seen my email sig knows, I have a soft spot for fat hooting raptors).
Ahem. Basically, what makes Hooze so cool is that it’s both a wiki and a database—an
editable, searchable, multidimensional collection of data all focused on companies, products, and issues that responsible consumers care about. So you can, for example, add info about businesses or brands that make you happy or angry, and also search for, say, the environmental and human rights records of a company you’re curious about.
I like Hooze so much that I’ve started contributing to it myself, mostly by adding corporate parentage tidbits as I continue to research that subject. I faced
a bit of a learning curve with the interface, which can probably still
be made more intuitive, but the more I play with it, the more I get my
head around it.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).