Once upon a time, there was Urban Decay. With a great name, and even better products, the brand rose to superstardom for another reason altogether: a love of animals and a commitment to avoid non-vegan ingredients in its products. The highly acclaimed cosmetic brand announced the news earlier this month that cosmetic giant L’Oreal was purchasing the company for somewhere between $300 million and $400 million. The question making the rounds in the beauty blogosphere as well as the cruelty-free one is: will this change things? The short answer: is lipstick red?
Of course that means the answer is yes and no. In Facebook speak: it’s complicated. While a nationally recognized brand, Urban Decay is sold primarily in specialty shops such as Sephora, versus L’Oreal’s utter ubiquity in supermarkets, drug stores and big box retailers like Target. L’Oreal owns quite a few beauty industry brands. It bought the popular airport time-killer, The Body Shop in 2006, and much of that brand’s integrity has stayed in check. But for vegans, the question is now a bit trickier. Even if Urban Decay’s commitment to cruelty-free ingredients remains intact, many of L’Oreal’s other product lines do not share that commitment. So in essence, a dollar given to Urban Decay is now a dollar given to animal cruelty; it’s just a bit more like paying someone to pay someone else to do the deed. Laundered cruelty. Oh the horror.
Urban Decay is certainly not the first brand to experience controversy over their choice to sell. Aveda, the highly coveted “natural” (and also cruelty-free) beauty brand, leapt into Estee Lauder’s net of cash fifteen years ago, losing employees and customers over the decision. Burt’s Bees sold to Clorox for nearly $1 billion five years ago and could use some of Clorox’s Drano to unclog the pipes from all the negative feedback from disappointed customers. In virtually every situation, the smaller brands selling out say the same things: It will increase reach. Costs will decrease. They’re experts in the category. This will change things for the better.
And some of those assessments are true. In the organic food industry, for example, companies that have sold to non-organic mega corporations such as Dean Foods, Group Danone, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Kraft and Kellogg’s include some of the biggest named brands: Kashi Cereals, Boca Burgers, Odwalla, Muir Glen, Stonyfield, White Wave. Once absorbed into the parent company, the distribution relationships allowed for placement in virtually every major supermarket chain across the nation, which certainly improved visibility and in many cases, lead to price decreases. To achieve greater profit margins, Silk soymilk, a WhiteWave brand owned by Dean Foods, quietly removed organic soybeans from its products (while also adding the toxic stabilizer carrageenan). Cargill–a brand known for owning a huge chunk of the genetically modified pesticide laden soybean industry–owns the once quaint brand of mock meat products, Lightlife. And while the brand claims to be GMO-free despite the Cargill connection, it sounds a bit more like the first couple of rules to Fight Club.
Tom’s of Maine, while still one of the leading personal care brands in the natural industry, is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, and many of its products contain the controversial ingredient propylene glycol. (In its deodorants, it’s often the very first ingredient.) The recent shocker that beloved New England brand, New Chapter, sold its vitamin and supplement business to Proctor & Gamble sent ripples of disbelief throughout its cult-like consumer base. How can the biggest conglomerate of brands (Tide, Febreze, Downey, Bounce) known for toxic chemicals that make people seriously sick, also sell some of the world’s most effective healing herbs?
There’s something to be said for the soul of a business. It’s perhaps why even though Wal-Mart— a source of contention for many brands, activists, business owners and consumers—gets more wiggle room than other companies: its family-owned and operated spiel really does means something. And that’s perhaps the biggest takeaway anytime a company sells out—they lose that happily ever after fairy tale ending. Monsters and evil adversaries make for great stories, but no one really wants them to win out in the end.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger