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15 ethical brands owned by unethical companies

From vegan brands owned by meat conglomerates to herbal tea companies owned by private equity firms with links to fossil fuels – we highlight ethical brands with some of the least ethical owners.

We have updated our list of 10 ‘ethical’ brands that are owned by unethical companies, with a bonus five! The list includes recent buyouts of more ethical options as well as brands making sustainability claims that their owners do not live up to.

We also ask the difficult question: is big business buying out vegan or ethical brands a positive step or a major problem?

At Ethical Consumer, we always rate companies based on their ownership so you can be sure you’re not buying vegan products from a company involved in factory farming, or your cleaning products from a company whose owner tests on animals.

Video: Five ethical brands owned by unethical companies

Five of the brands and companies listed here appear on our Youtube video. There are more companies and brands featured below.

1. Vivera (JBS)

Meat-free burger company Vivera was bought by the world’s biggest meat producer JBS in summer 2021. 

Vivera is Europe’s third largest plant-based food company, founded in the Netherlands in 1990, with over 100 products sold in 25 different countries, and available in most UK supermarkets.

Vivera previously scored highly in our ratings for meat-free burgers and sausages but its score has dropped following the takeover.

JBS scored low ratings across virtually every category. 

Numerous investigations have exposed extreme animal suffering at various stages of its supply chain, and it had the highest number of animal welfare violations for any meat company in the USA according to a 2020 report by the Animal Welfare Institute.

JBS is also notorious for links to farms involved in illegal deforestation of the Amazon. And it has the highest carbon footprint of any agricultural company, according to campaign group Mighty Earth.

In 2020, it was fined for bribing government officials including the Brazilian Finance Minister, and has been accused of being linked to modern-day “slave labour”

JBS also owns The Green Butcher and Richmond brands.

Three packets of Vivera meat-free products - spicy chicken kebab, chicken goujons and nuggets

2. Dorset Cereals (Associated British Foods)

Founded on sustainable and ethical principles in 1989, Dorset Cereals has changed ownership several times during its lifetime. Its current owner is Associated British Foods, which also own Jordans, Ryvita, Primark, Twinings, Kingsmill, Allison, Patak’s, and more. 

ABF scored a low rating for carbon management and reporting, palm oil sourcing and animal testing. 

You would not know any of this by looking at the Dorset Cereals website however, where there is not a single mention of ABF anywhere, and instead it is awash with pretty pictures and their green agenda.

Dorset Cereals score very low in our guide to cereals. 

Eight boxes of Dorset Cereals

3. Gosh! (Sonae Food4Future)

Vegan and free-from company Gosh!, which makes ready-made falafel bites, burgers and sausages, was bought by Portuguese mega-company Sonae in September 2021. Sonae is a multinational company that operates in many sectors, ranging from food to fashion to electronics. 

Despite operating in a vast range of industries, Sonae has very little to show when it comes to publishing information about its ethical practices. It seems scant amounts of its 7 billion euro turnover is going towards corporate social responsibility or minimising its damage towards people and the planet.

Sonae scored low Ethical Consumer ratings in multiple categories, including Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management, and has an Ethiscore of 0 overall.

Three packets of Gosh! vegan burgers and bites

4. Alpro and Follow your Heart (Group Danone)

Alpro may specialise in plant-based milks and yoghurts, but its owner Groupe Danone is far from ethical when it comes to human or animal rights. 

Danone claims to be the number one producer of fresh dairy as well as plant-based products globally, through its brands: Danone, Oykos, Activia, Danonino, Silk, Actimel and Provamel.

The company continues to use factory-farmed animal products, linking it not only to animal rights but also climate issues. By 2030, Danone’s emissions are likely to be double that allowed under its global carbon budget, according to a 2022 analysis by Planet Tracker.

Danone faces a global campaign over its unsafe marketing of baby milk formula. According to Baby Milk Action, the company targets health workers and sponsors health worker events and charities, violating international baby milk marketing standards. The World Health Organisation has provided guidance prohibiting the aggressive marketing of formula since 1981, over fears that it was undermining the importance of breastfeeding and risking the health and lives of babies and children.

US vegan brand Follow Your Heart was bought by dairy company Danone in 2021. Follow Your Heart’s best known product is Veganaise, but it also makes a vegan egg replacer, vegan salad dressing and vegan cheeses.

Differnet Alpro plant milks and yoghurts

5. Bute Island Foods (Saputo)

In summer 2021, Scottish vegan cheese company Bute Island Foods, was bought by Saputo Dairy (then known as Dairy Crest), which also produces a wide range of dairy cheeses and butters, including Cathedral City, Clover and Utterly Butterly. 

Bute Island is one of the original vegan cheese companies, in production since the late 1980s in its fully-vegan factory in Scotland. Its Sheese brand was also behind most of the UK supermarket 'own brand' vegan cheeses such as Morrisons as well as Sainbury's and Tesco

Following the takeover Sheese's ethical rating dropped from one of the highest, to very low.

In 2021, Saputo Dairy was accused of feeding its dairy cattle with soya grown in deforested areas of Brazil and the Amazonian rainforest, via US grain giant Cargill, according to Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed.

Picture of 8 packets of Scheese, non-dairy vegan cheese

6. Green & Black's (Mondelez)

Green & Black's was known as an ethical pioneer, becoming the first company with a Fairtrade certified chocolate bar in 1994. However, in 2005 it shocked supporters when it was bought out by Cadbury, which later became part of Mondelez.

Ethical Consumer rated Mondelez’ cocoa sourcing policy “inadequate”. The ingredient is often linked to child labour and other workers' rights issues.

The company also owns brands including Cadbury’s, Toblerone and Milka.

Green & Blacks has also been criticised for dropping the Fairtrade and organic labels when it launched a new range in 2017, which is neither organic nor certified with the Fairtrade International certification scheme. The Velvet Edition has Mondelez International’s own label, Cocoa Life, and no organic content.

Bars and boxes of Green & Black's chocolate

7. Pukka (CVC Partners)

Pukka is a B Corp that sells organic and Fair for Life teas. It was renowned for its ethics until 2017, when it was sold to the multinational company Unilever. In 2021, it changed hands again and has since been owned by CVC Partners Capital, a private equity firm. 

CVC Partners Capital also owns shares in a range of other companies including Neptune Energy, a fossil fuel company, and Exolum, a company that runs oil pipelines in Spain. 

The company received a low Ethical Consumer rating in categories including carbon management and reporting and likely use of tax avoidance strategies – meaning that Pukka’s score has plummeted in the tea guide

selection boxes of Pukka herb teas

8. Urtekram (48% share by Stena AB)

Urtekram sells certified organic and vegan health and beauty products. The company is owned by Midsona which is 48% owned by Stena AB, a Swedish multinational.

Stena owns ships and rigs for drilling, which are used by the fossil fuel industry. According to its website, it has been contracted by the likes of ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. It also advertises its infrastructure for arctic drilling – a type of oil extraction that could come at huge costs for fragile local ecosystems as well as the climate.

According to Greenpeace, “fragile Arctic ice and tricky weather conditions make a spill in the region even more likely” than elsewhere. Oil spills can harm hundreds of species and continue to cause damage for years after they occur.

As a result, Stena lost points in our Climate Change category.

Bottles of Urtekgram toiletries

9. Ecover and Method (SC Johnson)

Ethical brands Ecover and Method faced a boycott call after they were bought out by SC Johnson in 2017, over the parent company’s links to animal testing.

Ecover and Method are both cruelty-free. But SC Johnson openly admits to testing on animals

Caroline Ruane from Naturewatch Foundation, which is behind the boycott call, said: “It's hugely disappointing to compassionate shoppers when favourite brands compromise their cruelty-free credentials by selling out to multinationals that continue to benefit from animal testing.”

In response to the boycott, Ecover and Method have committed to using their influence to convince SC Johnson to stop animal testing.

Ecover and Method’s ethiscores have also significantly fallen due to the takeover. SC Johnson receive a low Ethical Consumer rating for likely use of tax avoidance, environmental reporting, carbon management and reporting and toxics, as well as animal testing.

ecover bottle

10. Oatly (10% Blackstone)

In 2020, Oatly prompted boycott calls after welcoming investment from the private equity firm Blackstone. We wrote about this at the time and reviewed their ethical rating score.

Blackstone’s CEO and co-founder Stephen A. Schwarzman donated $3.7 million dollars towards Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, propping up his Wall-Street donations. Schwatzman’s donations single-handedly accounted for three-quarters of the contributions from individuals linked to the 31 major banks and investment firms in the US, over an 18 month period. 

In 2019, Blackstone was also accused of facilitating Amazon deforestation through its stake in 'Hidrovias do Brasil'. Hidrovias was said to be allowing the export of illegal timber through its shipping terminals, and to have been involved in the development of a road through the forest, enabling easier transportation of clear-cut timber and violating Indigenous rights. 

Blackstone said they had been “falsely accused”. “Hidrovias does not own, control or have any interest — direct or indirect — in the road in question”, it said, adding that the company “only ships from traders abiding by the Amazon Soy Moratorium”, a major agreement amongst soy producers not to deforest in the region. 

The $200 million investment in Oatly represents a 10% share in the company – meaning that it doesn’t not affect Oatly’s score under Ethical Consumer’s ratings. Blackstone is a passive investor - meaning it has no management control over the brand.

Oatly also caused upset when it attempted to sue a small family business making oat milk in Cambridgeshire, UK, for trademark infringement in 2021. Oatly claimed that Glebe Farm’s PureOaty brand name was too close to Oatly and that it used a similar blue packaging. 

The High Court judge ruled in favour of the UK farm saying he did not see "any risk of injury to the distinctive character" of the Oatly brand. Glebe Farm is an oat farm run by brother and sister team Rebecca and Philip Rayner. You can buy their oat milk from them via their website

image: oatly oat milk

11. Innocent smoothies (90% Coca-Cola)

Innocent makes much of its ethical credentials, but the brand is owned by Coca-Cola. 

Over the last few decades, the soft drink giant has been accused of everything from being complicit in violence against union members to contributing to a water crisis in El Salvador. The company is also the world’s largest plastic polluter.

Coca-Cola’s sugar supplier Mitr Phol is currently facing a class action over alleged land grabs in Cambodia. In November 2023, a US court ordered the release of private Coca-Cola papers, which could reveal whether the drinks company knew about the abuse, according to the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association. 

The company scored very low in our soft drinks guide. Coca-Cola also owns Costa Coffee, as well as a number of other soft drinks brands such as Fanta, Sprite, Monster Energy, and Appletiser.

Two small plastic bottles of innocent smoothe fruit juice

12. Lily's Kitchen (Nestlé)

Lily’s Kitchen is a certified B-Corp, meaning that it is legally required to balance profitability with impact. The brand makes cat and dog food and also has an organic range.

In April 2020, it was bought out by Nestlé, causing its Ethical Consumer rating to drop by a huge amount.

Nestlé is one of the most boycotted brands in the UK, over its unethical marketing of baby milk. The International Baby Food Action Network has previously found Nestlé to be responsible for more violations of the World Health Organisation's marketing requirements for baby foods than any other company.

The WHO’s marketing requirements were introduced after it was found that aggressive marketing of formula milk was undermining breastfeeding, thereby endangering infants and babies.

Image: Lily's kitchen organic cat food fabulous fish dinner

13. KVD Vegan Beauty (LVMH)

In January 2020, KVD Vegan Beauty was bought out by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA.

Although the brand itself is vegan, its new owner has been widely criticised for its use of fur, silk and leather.

In 2016, a PETA investigation found that crocodiles, killed for their skins used in LVMH handbags and luxury items, were being kept in cruel conditions in Vietnam. The animal rights organisation described confined, dirty conditions, and inhumane slaughter and skinning techniques. 

In 2019, after extended consumer pressure, LVMH published a ‘responsible farming’ standard for its crocodile skin suppliers. However, PETA dismissed the policy as inadequate.

KVD is cruelty-free. However, LVMH received a low Ethical Consumer rating on animal testing.

Four female faces with make up

14. Linda McCartney (Hain Celestial)

Linda McCartney is a pioneer of vegan and vegetarian products, but its owner Hain Celestial, sells poultry and other meat-based products. The company appears to use factory-farmed meat across a wide range of products.

Hain Celestial also scored very low in a number of our ratings, including Carbon Management and Reporting, Supply Chain Management and likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Despite having a turnover of more than £1 billion, the company is yet to report its full emissions or set a target for emissions reductions in line with International Targets (although it is in the process of developing this). 

Linda McCartney Foods launched four plant milks in 2021.

Hain Celestial also owns brands JASÖN and Avalon in the toiletries sector.

Images of vegetarian vegan savoury foods burgers sausages

15. OGGS (minority share Upfield) 

OGGS sells vegan egg alternatives. In February 2022, food giant Upfield bought a minority stake in the company – although it did not disclose the size of the shareholding or how much it paid for it.

While OGGS is a 100% vegan brand, Upfield uses dairy in a range of its products. It received a middle Ethical Consumer rating for its sourcing of palm oil, an ingredient used at massive scale for plant-based butters and spreads. (Upfield owns other brands such as Flora, Stork, and vegan cheese Violife.)

Upfield itself is owned by the investment firm KKR. The firm holds investments in fossil fuel companies such as the UAE’s state-owned oil company Adnoc, and the US-Based Port Arthur LNG – a terminal for exporting Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from Port Arthur in Texas, which has been nicknamed “cancer alley” over the health risks faced by local citizens from massive pollution in the area.

OGGS still tops Ethical Consumer’s table, though, in our eggs and egg replacements guide, because we only think it's fair to factor in ownership stakes over 25%, and no one knows the size of this one! 

Boxes of OGGS products like egg replacer

Is it good or bad that vegan brands are being bought up by big business?

For big business there are lots of benefits to entering the ethical market. It can improve their reputation and ensure they get a piece of the profits from a growing market. (Sales of eco and ethical products have boomed over the last decade, according to our Ethical Consumer Markets Report.) 

Private equity investment companies have also been getting involved most notably in the meat alternatives market.

Whether it's buying up a previously vegan or ethical company, or establishing an ethical brand as part of a larger porfolio of less-ethical brands, we consider some of the pros and cons.

It enables more people to access climate- and animal-friendly products

The main argument in defence of vegan brands being owned by big business is that the size and reach of these companies enables more people to access plant-based products, often at a more accessible price.

Now is a time of climate crisis and we need to decarbonise at speed. Increasing the size of the plant-based market (presuming that the meat and dairy markets shrink correspondingly) is one way to work towards achieving this. It will also be better for animals.

People following plant-based diets can halve their carbon footprint in contrast to meat eaters. We therefore wouldn’t call on consumers to boycott brands owned by unethical companies if they make it possible to switch and you can’t access ethical alternatives.

These companies are linked to harmful practices

However, if you want your spending to have the most impact, it makes more sense to give your money to companies that you know are not going to reinvest it in activities that cause harm to animals or the planet.

It is obvious that companies linked to deforestation, like the meat processing company JBS, are actively damaging habitats and are failing to address their climate impacts. Similarly, Saputo sells cheese from factory-farmed cows alongside its vegan range. 

Some brands argue that they continue to maintain their brand integrity after being bought up by multinationals. We are sceptical whether it’s really possible for a brand to maintain autonomy in the long term after being sold. (As we discuss above, Green & Blacks decision to switch to Mondelez’s Cocoa for Life instead of Fairtrade for its new range is a great example of this.)

So, is it a good thing or a bad thing?

If possible, we advise buying from brands that have ethics running throughout their core business, rather than companies that are involved in the meat or dairy industries alongside producing vegan alternatives, or investment companies where a vegan company is just another way to make a quick buck.