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10 ethical brands owned by unethical companies

Over the years, many ethical brands have been bought out by unethical companies. In many cases the bigger companies are looking to improve their image or tap into the ethical market. Other brands make ethical claims, but have always been owned by unethical companies.

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 green energy from a company involved in fossil fuels.

We have updated our list of ten ‘ethical’ companies that are owned by unethical companies, with a bonus five! These additional five companies are at the start of the list, which is not in any particular order in terms of ethics or type of brand.

At the end of the list of 15 brands we consider whether big businesses buying out vegan or ethical brands is positive or not so good.

Video: Five ethical brands owned by unethical compainies

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 12 in our ratings for meat-free burgers and sausages but its score has dropped to a measly one mark following the takeover.

JBS scored our worst 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.

It is notorious for links to farms involved in illegal deforestation of the Amazon. Several supermarkets are boycotting Brazilian beef after investigations linked JBS and other major meat companies in Brazil to illegal deforestation.

It’s also been fined for bribing government officials such as the Brazilian Finance Minister, and has been accused of being linked to modern-day “slave labour”. In 2021 it also paid a $5.5m sum to settle claims that the company harrassed workers based on their ethnicity and religion. 

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 who also own Jordons, Ryvita, Primark, Twinings, Kingsmill, Allison, Patak’s, and more. 

ABF scores the ‘worst’ rating for palm oil sourcing, the ‘middle’ rating for carbon management and reporting, the ‘worst’ rating for Environmental reporting and the ‘worst’ rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

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 0 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 5 billion euro turnover is going towards corporate social responsibility or minimising its damage towards people and the planet.

Sonae scored worst Ethical Consumer ratings in 10 categories, including Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management, and has Ethiscore of 0 overall.

Three packets of Gosh! vegan burgers and bites

4. Follow your Heart (Group Danone)

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.

See the entry for Alpro to read more about the international dairy company Danone. It is the number one retailer of fresh dairy products globally.

Follow Your Heart vegan cheese, vegan mayonaise jar and grated vegan cheese

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 15 to 8.5.

Saputo Dairy has reportedly been 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.

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 Fair Trade certified chocolate bar in 1994. However, in 2005 it shocked supporters when it was bought out by Cadbury, which later became part of Mondelez.

Mondelez receives Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for its policy on sourcing cocoa, an ingredient often linked to child labour and other workers rights issues, and in 2019 it was found to be illegally marketing its products to children. The company also owns the Cadbury’s, Kenco and Terry’s brands.

In 2016, Mondelez was criticised for buying palm oil - a common ingredient in chocolate bars - from the secretive palm oil trading company Olam, which has been linked to deforestation in Southeast Asia and Africa. In 2018 and 2020 the company was again criticised over the issue, with civil society organisations saying that it still had not addressed the problem of ‘conflict palm oil’ in its supply chains.

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 certification 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 sold to Unilever in 2017. Unilever then sold it to CVC Partners in 2021.

Pukka herb tea boxes

8. Alpro (Groupe 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 is the number one retailer of fresh dairy products globally, through its brands: Danone, Oykos, Activia, Danonino, Silk and Actimel. It has a 26% share of the global fresh dairy products market. The company continues to use factory-farmed animal products, linking it not only to animal rights but also climate issues. According to its most recent position paper on animal testing, it also conducts tests on animals.

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.

In November 2021, Alpro’s owner announced they were converting a dairy production plant in France into one which is solely dedicated to making oat milk products under the Alpro brand.

Danone also owns the Provamel, Soya Soleil and Silk brands, which offer vegan products.

image: two alpro plant based yoghurts owned by dairy company

9. Ecover and Method (SC Johnson)

Ethical brands Ecover and Method face an ongoing 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. The company owns other non-cruelty-free brands including Duck, Shout, Glade, Pledge and Windex. 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 from 11.5 and 12 respectively to just 5.5 due to the takeover. SC Johnson receives Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance, environmental reporting, carbon management and reporting, pollution & toxics and supply chain management, 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. 

Blackstone has also been accused of facilitating Amazon deforestation through its stake in Hidrovias do Brasil. Hidrovias is 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. 

The $200 million investment in Oatly represents a 10% share in the company. However, 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

They will also be included in our updated non-dairy milk guide later in 2022.

image: oatly oat milk

11. Innocent smoothies (90% Coca-Cola)

Innocent makes much of its ethical credentials, but the brand is 90% owned by Coca-Cola. 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.

In the early 2000s, Coca-Cola faced extended lawsuits from the Colombian food and drink union Sinaltrinal, alongside its Colombian bottling partners. The suit alleged that the bottling company had directed paramilitary security forces who murdered, tortured and unlawfully detained trade union leaders. Coca-Cola was never convicted.

In more recent years, its subsidiaries in Indonesia, Dominican Republic and the Philippines have all been accused of workers’ right abuses, including anti-union violations.

The company has also repeatedly been criticised for siphoning off vital water supplies in regions facing water shortages. The local Coca-Cola bottling company has been accused of being one of the “biggest industrial water guzzlers and alleged polluters” in El Salvador’s region of Nejapa. According to one study, the country will run out of water within 80 years unless radical action is taken.

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 12 points.

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.

Nestlé has also been significantly criticised by US and Canadian Indigenous rights groups, over its over extraction of water, which they say “act beyond the boundaries of ecological protection and basic human dignity.” The Council of Canadians says that Nestlé has failed to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of local indigenous communities.

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 receives Ethical Consumer’s worst 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 scores worst in a number of our ratings, including Climate Change, Environmental Reporting, Supply Chain Management and likely use of Environmental Reporting. Despite having a turnover of more than £1billion, the company is yet to report on its emissions or set a target for emissions reductions in line with International Targets.

Linda McCartney Foods launched four plant milks in 2021.

Images of vegetarian vegan savoury foods burgers sausages

15. Octopus Energy (20% Origin Energy)

Octopus Energy offers renewable energy tariffs, and is part owned by the largest investor of solar power in Europe. However, the company is also 20% owned by Origin Energy, a major fossil fuel company.

Origin Energy is the largest owner of natural gas-fired power stations in Australia, and continues to produce energy from coal, one of the most carbon intensive energy sources. Origin has received repeated criticism over controversial fracking projects.

In October 2020, the chairman of the company dismissed complaints from Indigenous elders regarding its exploration in the Beetaloo Basin, Australia. Elders claim that some traditional land owners have not been adequately heard, calling for negotiations over land rights to be paused. According to Renew Economy, the project could “single-handedly blow through Australia’s emissions reduction targets.”

In January 2021, The Guardian also reported that Origin had applied for permission to explore the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre basin in Queensland, Australia, the previous July. The region is part of one of the world’s biggest free-flowing river systems. An independent report commissioned in 2019 by the Queensland government called for a ban on unconventional gas exploration in the area. Octopus Energy told us in May 2021: “Origin has indefinitely suspended all fracking-related exploratory activities.”

solar panels

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

Big business' involvement may not be for ethical reasons – to save animals and cut carbon – but more likely to make money from a rapidly expanding market. Our 2021 Ethical Consumer Markets Report found that the ethical food market grew more than the total UK food retail sector in 2020.

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.

As people following plant-based diets can halve their carbon footprint in contrast to meat eaters, we don’t want to advise people to boycott any companies that are making it possible to make the switch if they can’t access other more ethical alternatives.

These companies are linked to harmful practices

However, if you want your spending to have 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 harming the planet and don’t have climate change mitigation as a core value. Similarly, Saputo sells cheese from factory-farmed cows alongside its vegan range. And they’re not selling plant-based products out of a sense of duty – it just makes good business sense as the plant-based sector is booming.

Some brands argue that they continue to maintain their brand integrity after being bought up by multinationals. We are sceptical that it’s really possible for a brand to maintain autonomy in the long term after being sold – for example Ben & Jerry’s has struggled to maintain its independence following the Unilever takeover, despite its best efforts.

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

There are some reasons why it is good that bigger corporations are jumping on the meat- and dairy-free bandwagon. But, 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.