In general, the best shopping advice is not to shop at all. But if that's not good enough for you, I can babble on about margins and commodity fetishism to the point that you'll probably want to pay me to shut up, and I hear that's good for the environment. Yesterday Clorox bought Burt's Bees. This is hot on the heels of Colgate buying Tom's Of Maine and Adrian Grenier telling Woman's Wear Daily, "I hope to replace my entire wardrobe with eco-friendly clothes." Meanwhile, the ice caps are melting, people are getting horribly disfigured from unregulated medi-spas, women are dying from this new Brazilian formaldehyde hair-straightening treatment, and legions of New Yorkers like Jennie are obsessed with the notion that nail polish can kill you. How does it all link together? Very tenuously, which is part of the problem.
So, what does it mean that Clorox is buying Burt's Bees?
Well, first off it means that whoever owns the most shares in Burt's Bees is getting retardedly rich, because Clorox paid four times sales for the thing, or just south of a billion dollars, or about six times as much as it was sold for four years ago to... wait for it, a private equity firm, when one of the co-founders sold her shares to go do hippy-dippy shit.
Anyway, the company's CEO came in from Unilever, whom you'll remember as the giant conglomerate that gave you such eco-conscious products as Axe and Slim Fast, and he probably got a shitload of stock options with which he will probably start some sort of private equity firm specializing in such other "green" industries.
Now, for you, the Burt's Bees consumer, it's hard to say. Usually when big consumer products companies buy smaller ones they use their clout with retailers to get more of their merchandise into bigger retail chains in more visible sections of the store. But is it possible to go anywhere without being visually assaulted by a yellow Burt's Bees display? Seriously, I'm so glad that now when I'm in line at the Borders scanning the Economist the consumer gods get to fill my brain with thought like, "Oooooh, that last lipgloss made my teeth look a little yellow, but maybe if I get a slightly pinker shade..." Anyway from the looks of the stories they'll be taking the brand international, to which I say, "Oh, how nice for those international markets?"
So, what does it mean when something is "organic"?
Generally that it doesn't involve seeds that have had their chromosomes fucked with or fertilizers. Anonymous Lobbyist, who was involved with the legislation, says it's different here than in Europe, and there are reasons it favors bigger businesses here and smaller businesses there and sent me this sob story about a small farmer who got fucked by the regulations, but in general I think regulations are a good thing in a market where the little-guy-gets-fucked-by-big-business paradigm is so resilient.
Why we should care about that stuff?
I think the biggest thing is that there's a lot of paranoia out there about shit we don't understand, because none of us really understands any information we can't distill thirty seconds between pointing and clicking anymore. That's why parents are so afraid of the internet, and we're afraid of genetically modified crops and hyperpotent fertilizers. They are creepy, no doubt, in large part because mutations breed other mutations: overuse and misuse of antibiotics and antibacterial agents breed superbugs, and fertilizers breed disease resistant roaches, etc. etc. It's in human nature to want to put it all on halt, to say, Wait a sec, this shit's not natural, let's get back to basics. Just like it's human nature to believe that a positive attitude and a macrobiotic diet can beat cancer, or Amazonian shamans can heal your chronic back pain, or that God exists.
Do you believe in that shit?
Here's what I believe: the whole point of the market economy is to keep you engaged, driving to work, making money, buying shit with it, driving home, repeat as necessary. Protecting the environment, on the other hand, is about a certain level of disengagement; walking when possible, re-using shit, buying less. You'll notice that when you're broke, you tread lightly on the environment.
But broke people don't do much good to big public companies trying to eke out higher sales and fatter margins, so companies like Whole Foods and Rogan and now Clorox and Colgate go for the sweet spot: wealthier consumers armed with an array of fuzzy neuroses, paranoias and superstitions borne of the fact that they don't really understand how it all works, or who gave them all the money. So organic/natural/eco /green products that kind of fuzzily try to tap into that fuzzy array of concerns — personal health, ethically-sound practices, karma, cool packaging, the future of the planet — are never going to be fully satisfying. Sometimes you're going to find out it's a big scam, like with a lot of environmentally-friendly paper products, and other times you're just going to get a lot more conflict. Like if you go to Whole Foods and buy sushi, it's good for your health, but not so much the environment, since the tuna has to be flown vast distances in climate-controlled jets.
In general, you're probably just better off avoiding spending the money in the first place. And when you do want to spend money in a way that feels "healthier" or whatever, factor into your formula the question of whether the company's employees — and contractors' employees — are happy, given the circumstances. The combination of predictable prices, fewer meaningless "choices" and better employee benefits is, for instance, why I feel better buying food at Trader Joe's to Whole Foods, and, despite my own experience being annoyingly underpaid there, American Apparel to Forever 21, but really, when it comes to looking out for society and tempering the forces of global market capitalism, that's mostly the business of the government.