An item in AlterNet caught my eye. Ari LeVaux shows how the new corporate parent of Silk Soy Milk has basically dropped American Soy Bean farmers as suppliers and now purchases most of its soybeans in China. The ultimatum to American farmers was: meet the Chinese price or else. This represents a stark reversal of the commitment to American farmers made by Silk in the pre take-over days.
My first reaction was “Duh!” What did you expect. Ever since corporate America has turned organic agriculture into a lifestyle choice rather than an alternative model for agriculture, the bottom line beats all other considerations.
The take-over of a small “ethical” company by a large corporation happens all the time. In the case of chocolate, think Scharffen Berger, Green & Black, Dagoba, Seeds of Change, Endangered Species Chocolate.
After the take-over, it’s only a question of time before the environmental, ethical, or social commitments of the old company fall by the wayside. David Teather has shown in a 2007 Guardian article, that the Ethical Consumer Magazine score for each of eight “ethical” companies declined steeply after they were taken over by large corporations.
The real issue here is legal organization of the “ethical” start-up. As long as they are organized along the normal business model–sole proprietorship, limited liability corporations or straight corporations–there’s only one option when the “ethical” founders wants to get on with their lives: sell the company. And more often than not, the buyer is a corporate giant which has been lusting after that particular market niche.
We are so caught up in the image of the entrepreneur, the mythical person who pushes a dream into a successful business, that we cannot conceive of alternatives. What if all to social capitalists had just dropped the capitalism part and formed cooperatives instead? Worker-owned cooperatives to be specific. I’m thinking here of Equal Exchange in MA. It’s a fairtrade coffee and chocolate worker-owned cooperative that practices in its own structures what it preaches to farmers around the world.
Once organized as a cooperative, the entire question of what to do with the company when one gets tired of the day-to-day operations is a non-issue. The other owners continue, you get your share and that’s it. Of course, there wouldn’t be the multi-million dollar pay-off waiting at the end. Maybe that’s the rub. But if it is then the ethical pretensions of the entrepreneur were never more than skin deep in the first place.