CSR Challenge: Can Windex Go Green?

pledgeHere’s an interesting CSR conundrum: the softer the toilet paper, the older the tree destroyed to create it.  While some eco-conscious consumers may be willing to forfeit comfort for the good of the environment, the majority will not.  Where does this leave a consumer household goods company interested in sourcing sustainably?

This was the lead-in for a Ceres keynote delivered by Fisk Johnson, the Chairman and CEO of household goods company SC Johnson and fifth generation of his family to run the company.  Unlike many corporate executives, Dr. Johnson’s purported passion for CSR and the environment is both credible and impressive.  Anybody with doubts about his authenticity can look to his degrees--- a BA in chemistry in physics, masters in engineering and physics, an MBA, and a PhD in physics—for evidence of his passion for aspects of his family’s business that are far more technical than the average CEO cares to understand.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Johnson shortly after his keynote to discuss the role of CSR in his company.  His speech had focused heavily on the need to “change the culture of consumption”, so I asked him to tell me to what extent a person in his shoes is empowered to do so.  Can the CEO of a consumer products company significantly influence consumer preferences, or is he confined to investing in R&D and keeping innovative products in the wings until the tide turns?

Dr. Johnson is a pragmatist when it comes to this question.  In contrast to Seventh Generation’s Jeffrey Hollender, he does not concentrate his core business on building sustainable products from the ground up.  While SC Johnson has made some forays in this area, his company’s bread and butter is old-fashioned products with old-fashioned chemical constitutions.    Greening Windex, Saran Wrap, Drano, and Pledge is no simple task, although the challenge has not discouraged SC Johnson from trying--- the company launched a line called Windex Natural at one point, but consumers didn’t like its properties (as a sidebar, he notes that Clorox Green Works has faced similar obstacles).

Staying realistic about CSR challenges has resulted in a more measured path for SC Johnson.  Just under ten years ago, the company launched an internal tool called Greenlist, which allowed the company to track, measure, and improve the environmental impacts of raw materials used in each product.  Two years ago, company leadership sensed that public perception about sustainability had shifted sufficiently that it would be in SC Johnson’s interest to go live with the product.  The company’s experience understanding environmental impacts has prepared it well for meeting the demands of major customers like Walmart and Tesco, both of which require their suppliers to disclose information about their product ingredient impacts.

But as pragmatic as he may be, Dr. Johnson still spoke proudly of a product that he plans to launch using ingredients grown by Rwandan farmers using sustainable agriculture techniques.  I asked him what makes him believe that the product will command a premium given evidence that mainstream consumers won't pay more for green products.  “We’ll bring in a new consumer benefit,” he cryptically explained.  Only time will tell how his new CSR strategy will play out.

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