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Selling Out, or Infiltrating?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on March 21st, 2006

The news in the past week that Tom's of Maine is being sold to Colgate-Palmolive, and The Body Shop will be acquired by L'Oreal disappoints some ... but creative thinkers might see opportunity where cynics see surrender.

Anita Roddick, a personal friend of mine and founder of The Body Shop, says L'Oreal won't change The Body Shop's core values (environment, human rights, fair trade, etc.), but rather that L'Oreal will be transformed. As she says, "I am, of course, pathologically optimistic. But that doesn’t mean I am wrong. "

After all, Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's years ago, and the brand is still free of BGH and antibiotics, and the milk is bought from family farmers. Does it mean Unilever is any less evil? No, but neither is B&J, which is something, isn't it? Two steps forward, one step back is better than three steps back.

Colgate-Palmolive has been criticized for being anti-union, for putting unlabelled toxics in its products, and lacing its toothpaste with borderline toxic ingredients. Acquiring Tom's can be seen either as swallowing an embarrassing competitor, or an acknowledgement that Tom's natural formula works - there's a market for chemical-free products.

L'Oreal, after all, fired a counter clerk in 2003 for not being "hot" enough. And it has joined competitors such as Estee Lauder and Revlon in opposing "safe cosmetics" legislation. Is The Body Shop window-dressing, or is it an admission that doing good can actually be good for business? Guess it depends on how cynical you are. Maybe Roddick is right - maybe a vastly expanded market will be good for the communities from which The Body Shop souces its products. No one has accused The Body Shop or L'Oreal with being OxFam - they sell stuff you don't need. But at least with The Body Shop, if you're going to buy Body Butter anyway, its good to know you're helping women in Ghana feed their families at the same time.

Personally, I get irked at progressives who attack other progeressives for not being pure enough, for questioning any motives that don't keep us marginalized. Seems to me there's a place for open minds and optimism. At least until they are proven to be misplaced.