SC Johnson has one significant hurdle to leap to garner shoppers’ trust in an era of “all-natural” consumer-packaged goods and simple ingredient lists: it’s a chemical company.
SC Johnson is a manufacturer of popular household cleaning brands including Windex, Glade, Pledge and Shout as well as Raid and Off! insecticides. Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson has tackled that challenge head-on by emphasizing information transparency about what’s in SC Johnson’s products and taking many industry-leading measures to ensure that its supply chain and manufacturing push the envelope on sustainability measures. Johnson even went so far as to acquire a small but marquee brand of cleaning products with a green reputation, Method, in 2017.
Other manufacturing CEOs might be able to learn from Johnson’s determination to take a path that can be a difficult one in his industry. “Trust in our brands and company is extremely important to us,” Johnson, the fifth-generation scion who became chief in 2004, told Chief Executive. “We view transparency as it relates to our ingredients as one important way we continue to build and maintain trust in our company and our brands. We believe that if we lay everything out there for the scrutiny of the world and make it clear we have nothing to hide, that builds trust in our brands.”
So, for instance, the Racine, Wisconsin-based company recently revealed the detailed scientific criteria for its Greenlist program, which evaluates each product ingredient for its potential impact on human health and the environment. Among other things, this list includes more than 200 unique raw materials and more than 2,4000 fragrance ingredients which—while meeting legal and regulatory requirements and finding their way into some competitors’ products – SC Johnson declines to use.
And last year, SC Johnson took the bold step of disclosing the presence of 368 skin allergens that may occur in its products—again, a transparency commitment that other companies hadn’t made. Johnson’s move went beyond EU and U.S. regulations.
Actually, SC Johnson has a long history of environmental sensitivity and prioritizes sustainability practices, which have included leading the charge on phasing out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, sending zero manufacturing waste to landfills from about two-thirds of its production sites, and working to find a way to recycle its Ziploc household-storage bags at curbside.
Still, Johnson understands that as long as his company manufactures chemicals, it will face some form of public skepticism. “Every product is based on chemicals because everything is chemical,” he says. “There are an incredible number of misperceptions and myths in the marketplace about what’s bad and good. One of the big ones is that ‘natural’ is always better, and that’s absolutely not true: Some of the most toxic and carcinogenic things in the world are natural; they come from nature.”
For example, one recent piece of digital marketing from SC Johnson detailed all the chemicals in a banana, showing at least traces of things that humans wouldn’t want to ingest. At the same time, Johnson claims the toxicity profile of its window cleaner “is not dissimilar from that of water.”
Johnson also points out that many companies use palm oil in their cleaning products. It’s a natural ingredient, but harvesting it is “one of the biggest sources of deforestation in the world today,” he says – meaning that, in the big picture, using palm oil isn’t a sustainability practice.
As one might expect, SC Johnson faces “greenwashing” by other companies around “natural being better, when it’s not necessarily better,” he says. “We’re working on trying to clear up some of this confusion, and we think just being transparent about what we do and how we rate [ingredients] is one way to deal with the issue.”
As mentioned, SC Johnson bought $100-million soap maker Method and its factory on the south side of Chicago last year. Co-founded by Adam Lowry—who since has gone on to start up Ripple, a maker of “milks” based on pea protein—Method famously chose an economically devastated area to build a factory that features a greenhouse roof, wind turbine and solar panels, which makes products from biodegradable and nontoxic ingredients.
As far as transparency is concerned, Johnson says, “We’d love to have other companies who have an interest to join us and get on this train. The more that our industry can recoup trust in our products and our businesses, it’s good for everyone.”
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