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The business of green: My Burt's Bees prediction

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Burt's Bees Poison Ivy SoapLate last month, Clorox (makers of bleach, amongst other things) bought Burt's Bees (makers of "natural" personal care products) for nearly $100 million. A day or two later, the green blogosphere had a fit.

It's understandable. It's always sad to see a small independent producer gobbled up by a megacorporation. And, people wondered, what will happen to the products? Will they end up just as bad as all the other stuff on the shelves?

Here's what I think: Clorox won't change much about the line. I'm not saying consumers shouldn't be vigilant -- we absolutely should keep an eye on this situation. But think about it: What would a company that mostly makes cleaning products want with a safer cosmetics line?

What they want is a share of the eco-conscious marketplace. Clorox had seen their worth drop over the course of a year, and everyone knows it's good to have an environmental ace in the hole. There are two ways to go about that: green (or greenwash) your own products, or pick up a new, greener project. Since bleach would be, um, kinda tough to green, Clorox went the other route.

Making significant changes to Burt's product formulations could potentially ruin the entire venture for Clorox. I could be wrong, but impression is that Burt's Bees users tend to be very plugged into the "natural" community, both online and off. If a new formulation of a products makes it into Skin Deep and word gets out -- as it has a tendency to do -- Clorox loses it's share of the green market, and they're out nearly a hundred mil.

Tom's of Maine makes for an illustrative example. Colgate bought the company a while back, but a quick Skin Deep search shows that Tom's brand toothpaste still tends to score better than Colgate brands. It'll be harder to make such comparisons with Clorox, since as far as I know they don't own any other personal care products companies, but I'll be surprised if Clorox doesn't follow in Colgate's footsteps.

Meanwhile, Burt hasn't been involved with his Bees since 1993, although his folksy face continues to adorn the packaging. The company moved out of Maine ages ago, and in 2003 the majority of the company was sold to a firm that exists solely to buy small companies, increase their worth, and sell them off to bigger corporations.

They've managed to hold on to the small-company feel thus far, and product formulations didn't change much, although some critics point out that there's a lot more plastic packaging these days than there used to be. Of course, many of those who hear the news will stop buying Burt's because they don't want to support Clorox, which I can understand. And, as Julie points out, Clorox isn't exactly going to advertise its relationship with Burt's, meaning some consumers may never even realize just who they're supporting.