/ Food & Drink

Find out who really owns our ethical food brands

Chocolate bar being unwrapped

People want to know who owns the ethical brands they’re buying. But big brands like PepsiCo and Unilever seem reluctant to say that they own smaller ethical names, so we unwrapped the brands to find out the truth.

Green and Black’s and Kraft go together like chalk and cheese, or, indeed, organic chocolate and processed cheese triangles. Yet Kraft owns Green and Black’s.

Once I knew this, I couldn’t help but feel differently about Green and Black’s – it wasn’t quite the company I’d thought it was. And what plans did its owner have in mind for its ingredients?

I know I’m not alone. Large multinationals have been busy buying up small, ethical food and drink companies to get a piece of this multi-billion pound market. Yet they don’t seem terribly keen to tell consumers about their ownership. But consumers – understandably – want to know.

Who owns what – and why no-one else is telling you

We recently polled more than 2,000 Which? members, and three-quarters felt companies should state their owner on product packaging. But few companies do.

For our investigation we looked at the packaging of 10 ethical brands – including Green and Black’s, Copella apple juice, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, Seeds of Change chocolate and Rachel’s Organics dairy products. All are owned by large companies of the likes of PepsiCo and Unilever. Hardly any displayed the owner’s name.

Ethical foods test

So it wasn’t a surprise that the people in our survey knew the ownership of around one in ten of the brands (you can check your knowledge of which brands own what in the quiz, left).

And once we told them the owners, many felt tricked. One said: ‘I thought this was a nice little business, created by a woman of principle… now I feel cheated.’

If you buy foods thinking you’re supporting a ‘nice little business’, rather than giants like Kraft, PepsiCo, Coca Cola and so on, then you’ll want to read our investigation. Or maybe you think the owner is irrelevant?

Sybilmari says:
25 January 2011

I buy locally produced products as much as possible simply because I hate supermarket chains. They have too much control over our lives and the lives of the producers, amongst other things, in their pursuit of material profit. We are trained to depend on products that we don’t need and then exploited for those needs. I have changed my shopping ‘needs’ for this reason.

Tesco Informant says:
30 January 2013

100% Agreed, they are the devil in my eyes, complete bas-turds!!!!!!

consumer says:
25 January 2011

I don’t think that this is a big deal at all. The companies, as far as I know, were created and began as small enterprises that became successful and thus were bought out. The big corporations bought them because they were doing well on their own. They don’t change things because “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” they just wanted to make more money.

Although an interesting list of who owns what – did it really warrant all that space in the latest Which magazine. The space could have been better spent on more comprehensive data on the products tested.

Bethan says:
26 January 2011

A professor back in 2009 mapped and animated the change of organic industry structures. It shows clearly how small independent firms are bought by investment firms and they then get sold onto transnational food processors.

In contrast to acquisitions, most introductions of organic versions of well-known brands occurred after the implementation of the USDA standard in 2002. New organic brands are represented here as smaller, red ovals. More than half of the top 30 food processors in North America have engaged in this strategy. Some, such as M&M Mars’ Dove Organic, were developed specifically for retail giant Wal-Mart, which increased its organic offerings in 2006. While corporate parentage is easily apparent for the majority of these products, Anhueser-Busch first positioned its introductions of Wild Hop and Stone Mill organic beers as if they were unaffiliated micro-brews. This stealth strategy was quickly abandoned after it was revealed in the San Francisco Chronicle (7).

He concludes,
The changing structure of the industry has coincided with the loss of other ideals, however, such as improving the economic viability of small-scale farms, minimizing the distance foods are transported, and encouraging the consumption of whole, unprocessed foods (13). These impacts are not easily apparent, however, as the ownership changes represented in this project are deliberately hidden by a number of firms.

It is important to read the label carefully if you care what you eat. Personally I try to avoid shopping in large supermarkets and stick to growing my own fruit and vegetables. When it comes to chocolate, the British climate isn’t exactly perfect for chocolate growing so I will have to stick to the Green and Blacks. At least I’m trying to support something with an ‘ethical claim’.

Metasubversion says:
26 January 2011

I recently did some background research on Red Sky Crisps (Potato Chips). I was enraged by the packaging which if you read the back of the pack would lead you to think they we’re manufactured by tree loving hippies doing all the could to save the planet.

The thing is you cannot recycle the packaging in anyway what-so-ever. The fact that the reply email came from Pepsi Co, not the tree loving hippies I had imagined explained a lot.

Hello there! thanks for doing this. I am sitting here nibbling my last ever Green and Blacks. I loved them and now feel so betrayed.

I read the blog above and also the article linked to. It is really inspiring to read that 2/3 of Britons rated environmental and ethical issues as important when deciding which brands to buy!! That is wonderful. Now all we need is some truth from the manufacturers of these products about where the actual money goes. Do you know if there’s a really big definitive list of ownerships? That would really help us consumers. Keep up the great work Which?!

(Also thanks to the MetaSubVersion comment above – more outrage!)

I am originally Australian and part of Aussie proud is our shared love of a product called Vegemite by Kraft. I remember when Kraft was bought out by Philip Morris! No longer did Vegemite inspire a jingoistic call to love our country, but suddenly it was a case of supporting a tobacco company every time we induldged! We really do need to collectively become more aware of who really owns our food brands.

Gerard Phelan says:
3 January 2012

There is a set of directories “Who Owns Whom” that shows company relationships. Probably best looked at in a library unless you have a spare £3700 for the worldwide set.

Ownership changes happen all the time. Those who are shocked that Green and Blacks are not independent must have been asleep in May 2005 when they were bought by Cadbury Schweppes. It was a huge news story at the time ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4543583.stm ). That they are now owned by Kraft is a result of the January 2010 takeover of Cadbury Schweppes by Kraft.