Practicing Better Business, Honest

Nowadays, many companies do their best to sell a “green” image. Marketers work fervently to inject “sustainability”, “all natural”, and “better for the environment” into their rhetoric. In reality, they aim not at the values and virtues behind these claims, but at the profit gained by pulling in its audience. But are all companies like this? One of my favorite drinks, Honest Tea, proudly touts its organic labeling with an ethically suggestive name – but how authentic are they under a microscope?

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Honest Tea started back 1998 in co-creator Seth Goldman’s kitchen. At the time, there were three people in the company, creators Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebluff being two-thirds of that equation. According to the company, the first pitch to Fresh Fields (Whole Foods) involved serving their tea – not out of bottles – but out of a thermos. Needless to say, the presentation worked its magic and got them an order of 15,000 bottles. That was 12 years ago, the company now enjoys a staff of nearly 100, and much has since changed.

The Mission and the Ideals

Interestingly, Honest Tea offers their original business proposal online to get a better sense of what the company is made of. Comparing the two drafts – one from 1998 and one from today – they look remarkably similar, and are instilled with the same ideas. Here’s their latest mission statement:

Honest Tea creates and promotes delicious, truly healthy, organic beverages. We strive to grow with the same honesty we use to craft our products, with sustainability and great taste for all.
From the looks of it, Honest Tea not only appears to be committed to better products for the consumer, but also to  better products and practice for the environment. In this short mission statement, we see the words “Honest”, “truly”, “honesty”, and “sustainability”, all woven into an image for a candid and sincere company – but is it greenwashing?

On the same page, Honest Tea goes on to discuss corporate social responsibility. Interestingly, the starting line in this discussion reads, “We will never claim to be a perfect company, but we will address difficult issues and strive to be honest about our ability or inability to resolve them. “ If anything, the company gets credit for the modesty behind their claims. Still, they lay out strong values of diversity, support for those economically disadvantaged, and employee fairness.

From the looks of it, along with the taste, Honest Tea has got the ethics side of the equation down. Rhetorically, they present themselves well on paper. Then again, that’s just rhetoric, and as Aristotle said, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”

Dirty Laundry

As Deepthroat once said, “Follow the money.” This now well-known cliché is still very true, and probably will be as long as money remains such a power medium. That said, were does the paper trail of Honest Tea lead?

The one sign every blogger, columnist, and average Joe points to is Coca-Cola. In February of 2008, the poster-child of organic product business development, Seth Goldman, sold 40 percent of Honest Tea to the Coca-Cola company for 43 million dollars. According to Andrew Park, a columnist for, “For many in the natural foods world, that's tantamount to selling out to the Evil Empire.”

And truly, it is. Coca-cola is the epitome of what Honest Tea is trying not to be. Coke, much more often than not, is a leading contributor to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) obesity. It is a multi-billion dollar company known for arm-twisting its peons into contortions unrepresentative of the original state.  Would it do the same with Honest Tea?

Apparently, not. After laying claims to a close majority of the company, Coca-Cola accordingly tried to remove the “No-HFCS” labeling. Goldman, still with control of the company, was not moved. Even today, the labeling remains the same. What does Coca-Cola do for Honest Tea, then? According to Goldman, a wider market of free-trade teas, more money to develop ecologically friendlier bottles, and access to a wider market, meaning putting organic products in front of more people.

A Sweet Story, just a tad sourPin It

That being so, Honest Tea looks good under the lens. In fact, it has even made some peoples Top 10 Best Companies list (it came in at #6, under Clif Bar and above Patagonia clothing). The
story behind Honest Tea is wholesome, the values it expresses to its consumers is noble, and business practices it subscribes to are commendable. So, despite the story ending with corporate Coke looking over the shoulder of Goldman, I’m glad I can continue to buy Honest Tea guilt free.

From this consumer to the next, try Honest Tea beverages. They’re a better alternative to soda and glorified sugar waters (i.e. Vitamin Water). You’ll love it. Honest.

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