I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages. AGES. Ever since I announced my partnership with Tom’s Of Maine back in May and was met with a lot of excitement . . . but also some concern. Which didn’t surprise me in the least! I wrote to the company right away, and since I believe in transparency, I’ll just show you the exact email I sent to my contact at Tom’s that day:
So I announced my partnership with Tom’s on my blog yesterday, and was met *mostly* with support. My readers are incredibly intelligent and fiercely independent, which is why I love them so much. So naturally, they have questions and concerns about the company (I can’t imagine a situation where they wouldn’t, since we are a “question everything” kind of crew) and I just wanted to check in with you before I engage in a dialogue.
My readers are mostly concerned with Tom’s being owned by a parent company, Colgate. I feel very strongly that smaller, natural branches of larger parent companies should still be supported – for all sorts of important reasons. I would like to speak freely about this with my readers, to share my perspective on why I think it’s so crucial to support companies like Tom’s, despite their larger parent company.
Are you okay with me speaking freely about this?
Back on the day I announced the partnership here on the blog, I joked about how my big mouth was going to get my butt sued. So yes, I definitely wanted to run things by the folks at Tom’s and make sure I wasn’t going to breach my contract by speaking out about this.
And of course, they said yes, fine, no worries. Speak freely! I set up a conference call with another contact at Tom’s, so that I could learn about the history of the company, the details of the sale to Colgate (and why that decision was made – it was intentional, by the way!), and how it’s affected the company since. But scheduling meant our conference call had to wait a week, and then right after that I was administering midterms, and the week after that I was grading those midterms, and then a psychotic misogynist gunned down 6 students at my University and everything went into crisis mode for a few weeks. And then finals.
So this post, which I wanted to write when I could give it my full energy and attention, was pushed to the back burner. Until now! And now I want to talk about how Tom’s is owned by Colgate, and how I’m [mostly] totally okay with that.
To be clear, these are just my own thoughts on the issue; my own personal perspective. Your mileage may vary. And I’d love to hear your own thoughts down below, and as always I encourage discourse as long as it remains respectful. Yes? Onwards!
So let’s begin by talking in a big picture, abstract, non-Tom’s-specific sort of way. In the most general sense, I support the idea of small eco-conscious companies growing bigger for one simple reason: wider reach. If I believe in a company and what it’s doing, then why wouldn’t I want it to grow? Why wouldn’t I want more people to gain access to the products? I think (I hope? Or is this like when your favorite indie band gets radio play and suddenly you’re too cool to listen to them?) we can all agree on this. I hope.
The problem with small companies growing larger comes when those companies suddenly become lax around the ethical standards that drew us in to begin with. More business might mean larger manufacturing facilities, maybe outsourcing production overseas, maybe re-sourcing ingredients from less-than-stellar vendors, and on. Many eco-conscious companies start out small and wholesome, then begin to grow, and start cutting corners to support their growth. That’s green washing, and it’s a big problem for conscientious consumers.
But luckily, that’s just not an issue here. Because Tom’s is green, through and through. This is a company as green as any company I could possibly imagine. That hasn’t changed as they’ve grown, and it didn’t change one single bit when ownership was transferred. So yeah, you can call them out for putting beeswax in their dental floss (so unnecessary, why??!) or you can complain about them relying too heavily on SLS (and go ahead and tell them about it too – they really listen), but man, you can’t claim that they’re not on the absolute cutting edge of environmental stewardship in sustainable manufacturing. You just can’t.
Seriously, I encourage you to visit the website and learn about what they’re doing in terms of environmentally-friendly production practices, because it’s really sort of revolutionary. Read the Goodness Report. It’s incredibly thorough, and damn impressive. Read about what it’s like to work at Tom’s. Tell me you don’t want to work at a place like that! And then check out their Stewardship Model. Okay, now show me another major corporation that’s living up to that standard.
Guys, this is NOT green washing. This is actually a really, really good company. And I hope it goes without saying that I wouldn’t have decided to partner with them if they weren’t.
And look, I know the company’s not without its flaws. I’ll be the first to admit that – and I don’t have any problem saying so! Hey Tom’s, why you gotta put bee-derived additives in products labeled “free of animal ingredients”? That doesn’t fly with the vegans, dudes!
I can support the company, and admire them, *and* want them to do better. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Back to the Colgate thing. My question was, why did Tom and Kate sell their super-hippie company to Colgate in the first place?
Well apparently, it wasn’t an accident. It was a calculated decision. A choice. Because they knew that Tom’s would remain unchanged (as stipulated in the terms of the sale), while also reaching millions more people. Essentially, they wanted Colgate for its distribution. So that now, because Tom’s is attached to Colgate, Tom’s can be distributed wherever Colgate is distributed. And I love that. That was my original point! I love that everywhere, all over the country in grocery stores and Wal*Marts, from the inner city to the rural middle-of-nowhere, people from all walks of life and in every situation can choose a natural, cruelty free, and healthier product for their family. I believe that everyone deserves to be able to make that choice.
Listen. Here is my own truth: I may dream of an ideal future, but I am not an idealist. I’m actually a realist, maybe even a radical realist (just ask the vegans who want me to shut up already about all those EX-vegans), so I prefer to see a situation for what it really is, here and now.
And what that means is, I know it would be wonderful if we could all be making our own body care products at home out of coconut oil and baking soda and other simple ingredients. I encourage anyone who has the time and energy to do that, to do that! But not everyone has that kind of time. And for people like that, I’m so glad that they have access to a healthier product like Tom’s.
In my ideal world, we might also all support independent, local artisans. That would be amazing, and for those who can afford it, I encourage you to do so. But again, not everyone has that kind of disposable income.
I am not willing to ignore the financial or lifestyle limitations that millions of Americans face. To do so would be to erase them from our conversations about what it means to be a vegan or an environmentalist.
Clearly, I’m talking far beyond toothpaste. This brings up much larger issues involving social justice, equality, and perhaps the sort of realistic expectations that I believe our compassionate and eco-conscious community would do well to consider, if we truly want to make progressive change.
Not everyone has the means to meet the ideal. For people in that position (a position I was in less than a year ago, and which I am still working my way out of), I am so glad that Tom’s provides a natural choice that’s accessible to everyone.
So yes, that is why I think it’s important to support small sustainable subsidiaries of larger, big-mean-nasty parent corporations. Because they allow greater access to natural products for people who would not otherwise be exposed to such things, and also because every time you choose Tom’s over Colgate, it sends the parent corporation a very important message about the direction they may want to take Colgate itself in the future.
I know what the other side says – that the money trickles up, that buying Tom’s will ultimately line the pockets of Colgate. And I understand that, I do. It’s just that . . . I don’t necessarily find that to be a productive way of thinking.
In the same way that I shop at grocery stores that sell animal products, even though I’m opposed to eating animals, and even my little super-hippie Co Op in Portland sold eggs and dairy, and some of my very favorite restaurants that make an awesome vegan meal also serve up dead flesh, and I’ll support the delicious sorbet at my local creamery, even though their main focus is un-vegan gelato, and do you see where I’m going with this? This is my point about ideal versus reality. If you shop at a grocery store or a restaurant or any other place that sells items in conflict with your ethics, then you’re really no different than people who buy from green companies owned by a parent corporation. Which is not to say “Nyah Nyah, GOTCHYA!”, but is instead meant to illustrate that it’s all of us. We are all doing it. We all draw our lines in the sand, wherever we feel comfortable and in whatever way our own unique circumstances allow. But ultimately, our lines may not be as different as we prefer to imagine they are.
Personally, I’d rather see people give money to a company that reserves 10% of its profits to donate to charity, a company that’s busy thinking about how to reduce water waste and increase energy efficiency on the production line, a company that’s got an entire team of people thinking about the littlest things, like where they’re sourcing the glue that holds their packaging together, and how maybe they can switch from a petroleum-based binder to a vegetable-based one (seriously, this is what they’re currently doing). That makes me happy. I think it’s a good thing, and something I very much want to support.
But . . . that’s not my point. My point in writing this was not to try and convince you to purchase Tom’s. Not at all. In fact, like I said – if you have the time to make your own personal care products, I think you should. Or if you have the means to buy the small-batch local stuff, I think you should do that as well. I think that you should do whatever makes you feel best, within the constraints of your own actual reality.
My point, I guess, is that I don’t believe this to be as black and white as it’s so often presented. There are larger issues at play here. And I don’t know that it makes sense to blindly or blithely write off entire branches of the eco-friendly marketplace. I do think, however, that in order to be intellectually honest, we need to have a more nuanced conversation.
But that’s just me, your resident radical realist. Like I said above, your mileage may vary.
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