Clorox Green Works: What were they thinking?

Are corporations people? I’ll leave that for legal scholars to decide.

Are corporations funny? Uh, almost never.

Today’s evidence comes in a breathtakingly dumb digital ad campaign from Clorox Green Works. It runs the risk of  insulting the consumers of its environmentally-friendly cleaning products while managing to ridicule millions of people who are trying to be more conscious about the social and environmental impacts of the things they buy.

Worse, it’s not even funny.

See for yourself, if you can bear it.

Now, I’ll admit that deep green consumers can be extreme. I’m recalling, right about now, the menu of a 100% organic vegan restaurant called Cafe Gratitude in Santa Cruz where dishes had silly names like “I am Fulfilled” and “I am Open Hearted.” The food turned out to be fantastic.

But Clorox, instead of guiding people through a confusing landscape of sustainability claims, here chooses to caricatures conscious consumers as people who reuse dental floss, who say things like “I can’t believe you’re wearing leather,” who ask irritating questions about the provenance of their fish and who go ga-ga over “local, gluten-free, bio-dynamic, Fair Trade, dolphin-safe, edible” hair conditioner.

I honestly don’t understand what Green Works is trying to do, and reading the press release accompanying this marketing campaign only confused me further. [click to continue...]

Seventh Generation’s new CEO: John Replogle

Seventh Generation, the pioneer of the “green cleaning” industry, needs to become more stylish and innovative in order to grow.

So says John Replogle, the former chief executive of Burt’s Bees who was named CEO of Seventh Gen last week.

“We makes the best products in the market,” Replogle said. But the competition is intense, from companies like Procter & Gamble, SCJohnson, Method and Clorox’s GreenWorks.

To grow, Seventh Gen will need to update its tired packaging and continually improve its offerings, Replogle told me when we spoke by phone last week.

“We are going to out-innovate the competition in terms of meeting consumers’ needs in an environmentally-friendly way,” he said.

This means changes are coming to the Burlington, Vt-based firm. In a press release, Peter Graham, the company’s board chairman, said that Replogle’s job is

to ensure that Seventh Generation’s untapped growth potential [emphasis added] is fully realized in the years ahead, both financially and in our continued efforts to make our world a safer place for our children and the next seven generations.

Replogle, who is 45, is an interesting choice to lead Seventh Gen. [click to continue...]

Revolution in the laundry room

I’ve joined the laundry-detergent revolution. Well, revolution may be stretching it  — but changes unfolding (sorry!) in laundry rooms across America show how innovation can move us closer to a sustainable economy.

The revolution metaphor is useful because it’s a reminder that real innovation is more likely to be driven by upstarts, insurgents and rebels–like Method, one of my favorite companies–than by powerful incumbents who want to preserve the status quo.

Take a look:

Over the last several years, big, wasteful jugs of  laundry detergent like this one from Procter & Gamble’s Tide  have all but disappeared from grocery store shelves. These jugs were good for marketing people who plastered messages on the package but they weren’t good for anyone else.Tide

Today, the new normal is concentrated 2x (meaning half the liquid in every load) detergents like Unilever’s Small and Mighty All, which use less packaging and water, saving money on shipping costs and waste. Tide sells lots of 2x as well.. The 2x packages are convenient, easy to store and pour. all+small+mighty

But the greenest, smartest and most innovative detergent is an 8x concentrate from Method, which uses less water in a smaller package and should save consumers money. This is good for everyone except news P&G or Unilever, which have profited from the  overdosing of laundry, as we’ll explain. new-method-laundry-detergent1-538x1024

Method is a privately-held company that was started in 2000 by Adam Lowry, a former climate scientist, and his friend Eric Ryan in their San Francisco bachelor pad. [click to continue...]

The evolution of laundry detergent

“People are very entrenched in the way they do their laundry,” says Adam Lowry, the co-founder and chief “greenskeeper” at Method. And that’s a problem, as we’ll explain in a moment.

Method is an eight-year-old company that makes “environmentally-friendly cleaning products that are safe for every home and every body.” Started in a San Francisco bachelor pad by Lowry—a former climate scientist!—and his friend Eric Ryan, privately-held Method now has more than $100 million in annual revenues, about 100 employees and a good deal of buzz for its style as well as its green products. Although Method was the first company certified as a Cradle to Cradle company in the U.S., it’s probably better known for its packaging aesthetic than for its commitment to sustainability.

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“If your brand position is, hey, we’re the green alternative to the toxic stuff, and everyone else offers green products, you’re no longer differentiated,” Lowry says. “It’s also not very interesting.”

“We’re trying to create broad appeal, way beyond the green consumer, for products that have ‘green’ as one of their qualities,” he says. “There have been far to many green things that have been designed to be green, and they suck.”

Lowry spoke today at the Greener By Design conference in San Francisco, hosted by my friend Joel Makower and run by Greener World Media. (I’m a senior writer at Greenbiz.com, a GWM media property.) He’s an interesting guy—34, with a chemical engineering degree from Stanford, who worked for the Carnegie Institution before starting Method.

Method is at the forefront of changes sweeping the home cleaning business. (No pun intended.) Premium brands like Method, Seventh Generation and Restore are growing. The big players in the industry, meanwhile, are introducing green brands, like Clorox’s Greenworks and SC Johnson’s Nature’s Source. All tend to talk about themselves as plant-based, biodegradable, natural, non-toxic, chlorine-free and the like. I confess, I can’t even begin to sort out the competing green claims.

Method, though, was the first cleaning company to introduce a triple-concentrated laundry detergent back in 2004. That was a simple and very good idea—it reduced packaging, appealed to retailers because it saved shelf space and shipping costs and was easier for consumers to shlep home. At first consumers balked—they weren’t sure they were getting enough detergent for their money—but with a big push from Unilever, which introduced a product called Small & Mighty All, and an even bigger push from Wal-Mart, the idea caught on. Now most laundry detergents are compacted.

“We thrive by making the market change and getting our competitors to follow our innovations,” Lowry says. “You now can’t buy at Wal-Mart or Target a non-concentrated laundry detergent.”

Even so, there’s lots of waste in the laundry biz. Most customers fill the cap on the bottle to the brim. More is better, they figure. Lowry says Method would like to find a way to get people to use only the detergent they need, and to deliver it with less packaging.

“We have a quandary.” Lowry says. “We make a lot of plastic bottles. I’d rather make a refill system.”

If consumers were willing to bring their empty containers back to the store and refill them, they could eliminate the packaging associated with each purchase and, presumably, save money. Restore is trying out a refill system for its products in cooperation with Whole Foods Markets in the Midwest. (Here’s a link to the Restore website that explains how it works.)

The problem is, it’s inconvenient. “If you don’t bring consumers along with you, the most wonderful innovation is useless,” Lowry says. Plus have you ever seen how much coffee is spilled on the floor in supermarkets where people grind the beans themselves? The aisles could get pretty sticky once people start dispensing laundry detergent.

Method is working on the next big idea in laundry detergent, Lowry tells me, but he won’t say much more than that. “It will bring fundamental change to the category,” he says. He will say that when he thinks about the future of laundry detergent – and it’s a good thing someone is – he sees an evolution from plastic bottles to a refill model to a subscription model to a service model.

“We want to get paid for cleaning people’s clothes, not for selling liquid. The business model has to change,” he said.

No, I don’t know what he’s talking about either, but one can envision a smart washing machine that would dispense exactly the right amount of detergent and no more, then clean your clothes, separate the rinse water from the detergent and the dirt, and then  recycle the water and detergent and do it all over again. A closed-loop system, if you will.

“When I think about Method in the future,” Lowry sats, “I want to be able to revolutionize every product category in which we compete.” Continuous improvement is the name of the game. Method is worth watching. And it’s clearly about a lot more than pretty bottles.

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A new green sheriff in town

Coca Cola Enterprises claims its aluminum cans contain more than 50% recycled content.

Clorox claims its Greenworks all-purpose cleaner is made with plant and mineral-based ingredients.

And GE claims its compact fluorescent lightbulbs use up to 75% less energy and last up to 10 times longer than standard bulbs.

How do we know that those claims are true?

The fact is, we don’t. My experience tells me that the risk of exposure and embarrassment is enough to deter any big brand-name company from lying about the environmental attributes of its products. But there’s lying, and then there’s telling a selective truth or merely leaving out inconvenient facts.

What we need is a reliable, independent and trusted source to analyze such claims, the way websites like Politifact separates truth from fiction in the political arena. One organization that could emerge as a standard-setter, fact-checker, product-tester and verifier has been around for more than a century—Underwriters Laboratories. These are the people who test thousands of products to make sure they meet strict safety standards. Last month, Underwriters Laboratories launched a new subsidiary called UL Environment. It’s intended to help industry and the public make sense of the “green” claims that are flooding the marketplace.

Think of UL Environment as the new green sheriff in town.

“There’s a lot of greenwashing out there,” says Marcello Manca, who is vice president and general manager of UL Environment Inc. “We want to get rid of some of the confusion.”

I spoke by phone with Marcello, who’s based in Milan, Italy. He’s an Italian who got an engineering degree from the University of Nevada, spent 13 years working in Nevada and California, and then returned home to Italy. The president of UL Environment is Steve Wenc, a Chicago native now based in Geneva. UL has 66 offices, clients in 104 countries, 127 inspection centers and it employs about 5,000 engineers, scientists, chemists and technicians. A nonprofit that oversees a group of for-profit subsidiaries. UL is paid by the manufacturers of the products it tests and certifies.

Marcello told me that UL Enviromnent initially plans to focus on two categories, building materials and consumer goods. The company intend to begin by verifying environmental claims about energy, water use and recycled content.

“One of our employees recently purchased an all-natural mattress for his newborn child because he didn’t want his son to be exposed to chemicals,” Marcello told me. But because manufacturers of products ranging from household cleansers to children’s toys are not now required to disclose their ingredients, claims like “all-natural” are hard for consumers to verify.

UL Environment also hopes to establish standards for sustainable products, working in an open and transparent manner with manufacturers, retailers and NGOs. This, too, will require the cooperation, and financial support, of manufacturers, many of whom are existing UL clients.

“We’re taking a very pragmatic approach,” Marcello says. “Our intention is not to make the world perfectly green from the outset. We know that’s Mission Impossible.”

Finally—and this gets really interesting—UL Environment would like to take a broad look at company operations. So, for example, if a product claiming to be “green” is made by a supplier in China who pollutes a nearby river or the air, UL Environment could decide that the product failed to meet its standards.

“There is a school of thought that says that you cannot build a green product unless you are a green company, too,” Marcello says.

What’s intriguing about all this is that standards are enormously important to business. Think about how the organic standard has affected the food industry. Or how the Energy Star rating has driven appliance-makers to sell more efficient dishwashers or refrigerators. Or consider the impact of the LEED building standards on the real estate industry. An array of sustainability standards has the potential to drive green business practices deep into the economy.

Of course, that makes it sound simple, and it’s not. Devising standards and getting them recognized is a long and complex process, requiring value judgments. As my friend Joel Makower is fond of asking, “How green is green enough?”

What’s more, Marcello says: “Doing it right is expensive. Doing it right takes a lot of passion.”

UL Environment will have to convince manufacturers, retailers and consumers in the midst of a global recession to invest in environmental claims verification and sustainability standards. It won’t be easy. But it will worth watching closely.

Biz and NGOs: too cozy?

Only a mindless anti-business zealot (and unfortunately there are still too many of those) would argue that environmental groups should not cooperate with big business when they have shared interests. Even activist groups like Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace work closely with big companies like Citigroup and Coca-Cola, to help them make their operations more efficient or their strategy more environmentally friendly.

But there’s lots of debate about whether NGOs should accept money from their corporate partners. Does it compromise their independence? Threaten their credibility? Or enable them to bring in more money, and therefore have a bigger impact? That’s the topic of today’s Sustainability column.

By coincidence, I spent the day at the Net Impact conference in Philadelphia where corporate-NGO partnerships were one topic on the agenda. (Net Impact is an organization of business students and young business people who are committed to using business to make the world a better place. Some 2,400 people attended the very impressive event at Wharton.) I moderated a conversation about a corporate-NGO alliance with John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, and then listened to another where Ken Mehlman of private-equity firm KKR and Elizabeth Seeger of Environmental Defense Fund talked about their work together. CCE’s Brock and KKR’s Mehlman both said their firms got real value out of the partnerships—in terms of advice on how to better manage their operations, and from the public-relations value of the association with a green group. ”If we’re going to save the plant, we’re going to do it by making a profit,” says Mehlman. “That is the only way tit will be truly sustainable.” (When private equity firms, which are notoriously unsentimental, get serious about “going green,’ then you know the business case has become truly compelling.)

Interestingly, CCE and its sister company, Coca Cola, pay the WWF for its advice, and make donations to the group to help restore rivers and streams. But no money changes hands between KKR and EDF.

There are good arguments for both models, and you can read them in the column. My belief is that the NGOs, at a minimum, need to be transparent about their dealings with business. That is, they need to disclose how much money they are taking from their corporate partner over what period of time, and what services they are providing in return. One controversial partnership, a deal between the Sierra Club and Clorox, fails to meet this test. Here’s how the column begins:

Some environmentalists attack bottled water. Not Conservation International, a Virginia-based nonprofit that aims to protect the earth’s biodiversity.

When Fiji Water announced a sustainability initiative last spring to help protect forests on the remote Pacific Island of Fiji, Conservation International Peter Seligmann praised the move.

“We applaud Fiji Water for offsetting the climate impact of its products, reducing the impact of its operations, and funding crucial conservation efforts that support local communities and protect some of the last remaining forests in the South Pacific,” he said in a Fiji Water press release.

The endorsement didn’t surprise anyone who understands the relationships between Fiji Water and Conservation International. The privately-owned bottled water company pays Conservation International – neither party would say how much – to finance the work they do together. Stewart Resnick, who owns Fiji Water with his wife, Lynda, sits on Conservation International’s board and donates to the group.

Such cozy arrangements are increasingly common as big companies work side-by-side with big NGOs (non-government organizations). Clorox secured the endorsement of the Sierra Club – and the use of its logo — for a line of eco-friendly cleaning products, called GreenWorks that the company introduced late last year. Neither will disclose how much cash is involved.

You can read the rest here.