Dear Umbra,

So glad you were ransomed. (I happily did my bit.) I’m worried that the gentle-on-the-environment start-ups are taking the money and running. First our favorite toothpaste, Tom’s of Maine, sold out to Colgate (I think) and now Burt’s Bees has become a product line acquired by a bleach company. Where do we turn for sparkling teeth and rosy cheeks?

Eatonville, Wash.

Dearest Irene,

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May I split a few awapuhi-softened hairs with you? Neither Tom’s nor Burt’s Bees can be characterized as a start-up. Both businesses are well established and worth millions. It’s not like they barely got themselves off the ground and then — suddenly! — a giant alien came to eat them! They must have known it was coming, and maybe even took pride in bringing a fringe company so far into the mainstream. Also, the former owners of Tom’s and Burt’s would likely bridle at the thought that they have “taken the money and run.” Tom of Tom’s and his partner Kate both seem to mean to stay and assist in some kind of transformation at Colgate-Palmolive, or at least stay and keep running a responsible toothpaste subsidiary.

Same great paste, fewer principles?

Photo: iStockphoto

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And from what I can tell, the Burt’s folks are remaining involved in the cause as well, though in a different way. I read a very interesting article about Burt’s Bees’ sale to Clorox (not a bleach company but the bleach company) in The New York Times. Basically, Burt had bees, Roxanne made products with the wax, the company got big, Roxanne bought Burt out, they brought in a corporate guy to run the company, now Clorox has purchased Burt’s Bees. It sounded like Burt, despite having a fancy house, went back to living in a converted turkey coop because he prefers it (which is the detail that makes it worth telling the story); and Roxanne uses her buyout money to purchase and protect Maine forests. (Well, plus to gad about seeing the world — I would do it too! What happened to that ransom money?)

L’Oreal bought the Body Shop, General Mills owns Cascadian Farms, Unilever owns Ben & Jerry’s, Coke owns Odwalla, Tom’s of Maine now belongs to Colgate-Palmolive … if you’re interested, you can look through details of the ownership structure of the organic industry. Riveting reading.

Is corporate involvement in “natural” products bad? The answer isn’t cut and dry. In part these smaller brands built consumer loyalty by having a good story, usually a story of naturalness and ecological beneficence coupled with smallness, ruralness, and gumption. The smallness and gumption becomes overtly fake when a small company is devoured by a larger one, but at the point you are eaten by Clorox I’m not sure you can lay claim to small and feisty any longer anyway.

As to the environmental records of the smaller companies, and what will happen in their accession to larger companies, we can probably say it ends up a mixed bag. The larger companies often want to integrate the interesting green aspects of the small, and pledge to keep the green unchanged. I’m sure we’re all skeptical about that pledge. When this issue arises, I often think of Gene Kahn. He founded Cascadian Farms, back when he was a ’70s back-to-the-lander, and in all the articles I’ve read about him, he never looks back. First he sold to Welch’s, during a time of financial duress, and now Cascadian Farms is part of General Mills. Kahn appears to feel that any successful alternative venture will be absorbed into the mainstream, where it will begin to effect change from within. It’s hard to argue against the huge increase in organic acreage. Even industrial organic is far better than conventional industrial.

I feel it may be the same with all these relatively smaller personal-care product companies and food specialty companies. Some of the environmental and social benefits they had worked for may be lost — or polluted through association with larger companies with egregious environmental and social records — but on the positive side, their products are distributed widely, and may replace less beneficial products. A type of evolution occurs, and we don’t need to see it as a loss on our end.

In the meantime, new actual start-up companies move in to take shelf space at the natural-food store. Often newer companies are striving even harder than the established “alternatives” were to do right by the planet and their workers. Don’t despair of finding small companies manufacturing responsible products, is what I mean to say — there should always be a wave of people getting their foot in the natural-products door. You’ll have to ask at your nearest natural grocery about what brand to try next.

If you’re still looking for a whole package of economic, environmental, and social justice in your toothpaste, you may just need to switch brands. On the other hand, it’s just toothpaste. I’m not sure buying Tom’s Cinnamint marks you as a sellout.