I’ve been thinking a lot recently about small companies with strong ethical frameworks, which sell out to big ones. For instance, Howies sold out to Timberland, Innocent sold out to Coca Cola, Pret A Manger sold out to McDonalds, and Ben and Jerry’s which sold out to Unilever. Of course there were also the chocolate makers Green and Blacks which sold out to Cadburys, and a few years ago Seeds of Change sold out to Mars.
In the first place it makes me wonder if any of these brands were really ethical in the first place, ever really true believers, or in fact whether they were always more concerned with running a profitable enterprise which would provide them with a nice pension. You might say there’s nothing wrong with that, you might, I wouldnt but you might. However, surely we can agree on the notion that you shouldnt build your brand on the idea of ethics and then cynically sell out when the price is right?
However, as is always the case the issue is not black and white – take for instance the recent change in direction from both Mars and Cadbury who have announced they will be introducing fair trade chocolate into their production this year. More than that Mars are mapping the cacao genome and making the research available freely to speed up the development of more hardy varieties, and even more notably they are committing to fully sustainable sourcing for all their chocolate.
When they took over Seeds of Change Mars took on board the company’s founder, a white bearded gent who looks like a character from a Tintin comic, known as Howard Yana Shapiro. It is he who is credited with leading Mars into this transition.
Certainly outside pressure from groups like Stop the Traffik and the general marketability of sustainable and fair trade as branding buzzwords must have played a big part too, but would they have gone this far without Shapiro’s input?
So perhaps these small ‘ethical’ companies selling out to the big boys isnt such a bad thing, perhaps this is a catalyst for good and needed change. But then again, if that good change is just motivated by the profit margin? Does it mean face value change rather than heart change? And if there is no heart change, will the change last?
I am often conflicted by these things, particularly when it comes to big business. Here’s an example, Shell have just ‘shelled’ out a load of money because of a certain unpleasantness in Nigeria a few years ago – no admission of guilt, plenty of accusations, etc and so on. They are a big bad beast. However, the Shell foundation (their charitable arm) was one of the principal funders of the organic cotton project in India which has led to the growth in organic cotton take up by western brands – its been a major source of positivity and good. People have suggested I talk to them about my plans – such as they are. Can I bring myself to talk to Shell about this, knowing how big and bad they are? Can I bring myself to see my idea fail without their money, knowing how much good it can do? To make things easier for myself, I just procrastinate 🙂
When, if ever, is it appropriate to sell out, and to whom? I heard a cautionary tale on the radio this morning, of a school which was having problems with parents picking their kids up from school late, they began imposing fines upon tardy parents, and guess what? The problem got worse – parents began to see this as an acceptable fee for their misdemeanour.
If there is no moral stigma put on problematic consumption and production, (in other words, if we keep taking the blood money of big brands who are up their neck in misdeeds,) then all these sustainability changes are only ever going to be surface. The true believers are never going to have the last say, and the market will dictate the mood.
The radio program I mentioned was this year’s Reith lecture, which was excellent – and posed questions about how far markets can go without moral and spiritual questions being asked of them. Are there things we should not sell? I am inclined to think yes.