Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Brand Behind the Brand

Natural products advocates and consumers are up in arms this week as they discover that many of their favorite brands are spending money to defeat Proposition 37 in the State of California. Prop 37 is a ballot initiative that would require labeling of products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Calls for boycotts and protests are on the rise against many popular natural brands. But the issue is not so simple, as Marc Gunther points out on GreenBiz.com. The problem lies in the fact that these popular natural product companies, such as Naked Juice, Honest Tea, and Cascadian Farms are owned by food giants (Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and General Mills, respectively) who are fighting hard to block Prop 37. Collectively, these agricultural behemoths have spent more than $20 million to date to defeat the initiative.

This does not mean that the natural brands are on board with their parent companies. Many of these brands, from Cascadian Farms to Larabar, are speaking out to defend their commitment to organic, non-GMO products. But the power of "Big Food" makes the small voices of these operating divisions far less compelling. The take-away from all of this, as Gunther points out, is that "consumers who purchase natural and organic food should be aware that they are supporting big food companies that want to deny them the right to know about GMOs in their food."

Many independent, mission-driven natural products brands are quickly gobbled up by massive corporate giants who want a piece of the green market, but who lack the commitment or passion for true sustainability. Whether in the food world or the personal care industry (i.e. Burt's Bees is owned by Clorox, Tom's of Maine by Colgate-Palmolive), preserving small business is essential for consumers who have a passion for safe, non-toxic, and organic products.

The beauty of technology is that more and more of this information is coming to light via the internet. Social media has driven a remarkable information age for consumers and is making corporate transparency even more essential. As the natural products industry is flooded with companies seeking to capitalize on consumer demand, consumers are starting to decipher a specific set of criteria for their buying habits. The "natural" label is no longer compelling enough. Consumers - and particularly Holistic Moms - want to know more than the quality of ingredients (i.e. certified organic, GMO-free), but the social and corporate responsibility of the brand behind the product. As consumers begin to shop with new standards and recognize that their dollars are feeding food giants even when buying from their "organic" divisions, this becomes a driving force for those with a passion for natural living. Prop 37 might be overrun by "Big Food" but consumers wield a new power that these brands are going to have to pay attention to, sooner or later.

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