February 26, 2010

COMMENTARYAre 'natural, organic, eco-friendly' products really what label claims?

— Once upon a time, Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper in Dexter, sold honey in pickle jars from the back of his pickup truck. He lived in the wilderness in a turkey coop with no running water or electricity.

In 1984, he met named Roxanne Quimby and together they started a business of natural-inspired health care products made from honey, including the Burt's Bees line.

According to an Alernet.org article by Andrea Whitfill, the company was sold to Clorox in 2007 for more than $900 million. While Quimby lives off of her $300 million profit, Shavitz, at 73 and $4 million wealthier, ''continues to reside amidst nature in his now-expanded turkey coop, which still remains absent of electricity or running water.''

The point of this story should not be about what people do with their profits, but what happens to the quality of the products that consumers put their faith in because they come from independent, socially responsible entrepreneurs that are reputed to be natural, organic and/or eco-friendly.

Selling such a product to a company like Clorox, a bleach company with a history of using chemicals in its products that sometimes require warning labels, is enough to give any consumer pause.

Tom's of Maine, originally a small, environmentally conscious company, is now owned by Colgate-Palmolive, whose commodities include Ajax, Anbesol and Speed Stick. Ben & Jerry's ice cream was sold to Unilever, which also owns Breyers, in 2000 for more than $300 million.

Odwalla, which sold fresh-squeezed juices, is now owned by Coca-Cola, while Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for an estimated $450 million.

Bottled water is an issue all to itself. According to Whitfill, corporations are taking control of water supplies while promoting a larger market for bottled water and creating massive non-biodegradable waste from plastic bottles.

And frequently tap water is of higher quality and more closely tested than bottled.

''Contrary to the image of water flowing from pristine mountain springs, more than a quarter of bottled water actually comes from municipal water supplies,'' writes Michael Blanding, senior writer at Boston Magazine. ''The industry is dominated by three companies, who together control more than half the market: Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle, which produces several 'local' brands, including Poland Spring, Arrowhead, Deer Park, Ozarka and Calistoga.''

Now, time for breakfast. Apparently, Kashi cereals, catering to the healthy set, was bought out by Kellogg's, the 12th-largest company in North American food sales, according to Food Processing.

In 2004, Kraft Foods, producer of processed cheeses and Kool-Aid, and also a subsidiary of Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA, a cigarette producer, bought the natural-cereal maker Back to Nature.

It almost goes without saying that many of these kinds of corporate connections are kept under wraps, the consumer unaware.

And when the government certifies a food substance as ''organic,'' it rarely has anything to do with an assessment of how it is locally produced or how workers are being treated, and so on.

''What's important to keep in mind is that these big corporations are getting into organics not because they have doubts about their prior business practices or doubts about chemical, industrial agriculture,'' asserts Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

''They're getting in because they want to make a lot of money.''

It could be argued that capitalism, in this way, could create more niche markets when people shy away from buying mass-produced items, filling new voids.

And, it would be unrealistic to expect consumers to completely stop purchasing products of questionable origins, as if asking us to stop bathing, brushing our teeth, washing our clothes, cleaning our homes, eating, etc.

Yet consumer awareness needs to be raised about the products we spend our money on. Our health and the environment we live in should not be reduced to a ''brand-image'' concept that serves to benefit only industries and manufacturers.

Instinctively, I don't trust large conglomerates and corporations to provide me with a natural product. It's too likely that money corrupts even the most well-intentioned businesspeople, thereby ruining the concept of good and healthy products. I will always view a product from a cottage industry, an independent producer, the local little guy, with a tad more respect than the mass-produced one.

Yes, powerful conglomerates have big marketing budgets and existing distribution systems that can get items in the hands of more people.

But, do they really care as much about the concerns of the knowledgeable buyer?

Are the original contents, recipes and production methods used by the founders of these brands being altered? Is there a deterioration in quality?

It's hard to know because, these days, it's just too difficult to figure out who owns what.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, ''The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,'' is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

leighd@lycos.com

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