Can Clorox Save the Everglades? Why Not?

3 11 2007

By Jill Ettinger

Earlier this week the Clorox Company announced the purchase of natural skin care brand Burt’s Bees for a whopping $925 million dollars. That’s right, $925 million American dollars. The growth of Burt’s is the familiar cliché rags-to-riches natural product success story. Innovation and smart money management grew this little beeswax candle company into a behemoth dominating the booming personal care segment of natural food stores. Burts’ products can now be found in places like Target, along with permanent displays at Whole Foods (who, by the way, bought the one-hundred store chain Wild Oats for almost half of what Clorox paid for Burt’s).

While not organically focused, Burt’s relies heavily on the (somewhat vague) “natural” definition on their labels. References to herbal extracts and things easily pronounced, which do comprise a majority of their products, mix in with other not-so-natural sounding ingredients like: sucrose stearate, sucrose distearate, fragrance, glucose, lactoperoxidase, glucose oxidase, sodium chloride, xanthan gum, sodium borate, mica, titanium dioxide, iron oxide (from their Radiance Night Cream). Not that these are by any means evil toxic chemicals, but they’re definitely processed something-or-other-stuffs. It’s a bit spooky eating or wearing things that aren’t easily recognizable. The whole personal hygiene industry ($200 billion world wide) in general is strangely sterile, parlaying the sanitizing effects of nature in their products, albeit most often in modified forms or, altogether absent. From deodorant to shampoo and shaving cream, companies go to great lengths recreating the intensely effective moisturizing, cleansing and healing properties of substances like shea butter, coconut and cacao butter, and of course Burt’s namesake: beeswax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and honey. Giant industrial chemical by-products find their way into our personal care products, not because they’re great for our skin, but rather because they mimic nature and can be sold off for profits for their large industrial parent companies, and often at much cheaper than the cost of procuring the more effective and more sustainable natural alternatives. Generally regarded as safe (GRAS) approvals have been given by the FDA to common ingredients like propylene glycol which is used in brake fluid, anti freeze, laundry detergents, paints and floor wax and found in products like Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste, the largest “natural” oral hygiene care brand.

In addition to our obsession with synthesizing less effective knock-off skin care, our fear of germs has propelled brands like Clorox into antibacterial monsters making bleach a household product “safe for use” around children. Please. Chlorine bleach is simply one of the most awful chemicals regularly used. It creates dioxin, which is a highly caustic by-product released into the environment in massive quantities in the industrial bleaching of wood pulp in making paper. The paper-making process releases about 150,000 tons of chemicals, mainly dioxin every year. Water, also essential in paper production, (one facility can use anywhere from 10 to 70 million gallons per day), situates paper mills near rivers, lakes and streams. Guess where all those toxins first dump, turning fresh water into bubbling chemical baths.

Beyond our crisp white paper obsession, we douse our homes in bleach products, ironically to protect our loved ones from harmful germs. In reality we’re just trading potential protection from a short-term cold or flu for long-term damage from chemical residue, the full potential of which we don’t even know. What we do know is that dioxin has been linked to birth defects, inability to maintain pregnancy, decreased fertility, reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, diabetes, learning disabilities, immune system suppression, lung problems, skin disorders, lowered testosterone levels and of course, the big C.

So while one hand applauds Clorox for even recognizing natural alternatives like Burt’s Bees have a bright future, the other hand is looking for another lotion, just in case.

Even more startling than this strange pairing though is the nearly $1 billion dollars this acquisition is costing Clorox. White Wave, makers of Silk Soymilk, sold to Dean Foods for under $200 million; Whole Foods bought Wild Oats for under $600 million; Tom’s of Maine, the quintessential natural toothpaste company, sold to Colgate for only $100 million. So when exactly did Burt’s become so darn valuable? Their sales are hovering under (a still surprising) $200 million, but it’s the value add to the Clorox brand that makes up the difference. Yes, Burt’s Bees is nothing more than a marketing ploy for the bleach boys.

Burt’s is the largest acquisition in nine years by the Clorox company. According to Bloomberg.com, Clorox stock has been dropping. Their first quarter net income fell over $100 million. People just don’t think healthy or natural when they think Clorox. Ali Dibadj, a New York-based analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co said “The Clorox name doesn’t tend to make one think of nature- friendly products.” Well, that’s a relief. At least we know Clorox hasn’t bleached out our instincts to what is natural. So will they take this to heart is the question. Will they look to reinvent their offerings to become authentically harmonized with the natural world or will they just manipulate the Burt’s Bees labels to mask their toxicity?

These are great times for corporate raiders to wash away their unconscionable pasts and pioneer our entrance into a triple bottom line future. But still, it’s just so hard to trust companies like Clorox. So here’s an idea of how they could begin to erase their big bad reputation as cold, heartless moneymaking machines:  Take the soon to be nonexistent Everglades restoration program. The forty-year $8 billion plan is being pushed back indefinitely, already off schedule due to the funding efforts going to war and reckless development by the Bush administration, building right up against the ever-decreasing forest edge. Bush is just doing what his financiers ask him to. There’s a lot more money in killing people for oil than in protecting egret nests.

The Everglades is one of the most important ecosystems on our planet, and it’s vitally damaged. Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, which flows into a river of grass, has been stifled, causing critical injury to the million-plus acres west of Miami. This is the source of fresh water for South Florida residences, as well as home to some of the rarest and most precious natural resources. The Everglades have already been reduced to less than half of their original size, shrinking more every day.

Old growth Cypress trees are some of the most beautiful parts of the Everglades, hovering over quiet swamps where orchids and alligators live amidst birds and …bees. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Clorox, now the proud owners of a natural products industry leader, took it even further, segueing into both the natural products industry and the natural world? Considering all the damage they’ve caused in the last century, what if they donated a percentage of sales to supporting the healthy future of an important ecosystem like the Everglades? Come on guys, why not?
[Note: The Cypress tree photo above is from renowned south Florida photographer Clyde Butcher. His work capturing the Everglades is stunning. Check him out at clydebutcher.com.]

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2 responses

3 11 2007
Blizej Natury » Blog Archive » Can Clorox Save the Everglades? Why Not?

[…] post by innercontinental Leave a […]

3 11 2007
g

You aren’t quite right as to the water source argument. The Biscayne Aquifer is the source of water in South FL. In other words, water is not drawn from surficial sources, but from wells. This may be a minor point (especially in light of the means of recharge for the resource), but it explains why areas between WPB and Naples (areas that are primarily agricultural) have been able to source their own water supplies.

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