More green biz reporting from the Sustainable Brands ’08 Conference.

Sustainable Brands LogoEven the Clorox Company, with $4.8 billion in sales last year, has set out to get a piece of the proverbial green apple pie that the conscious American consumer is becoming. Recognizing that sustainable products are no longer a wee e-niche market, Bill Morrissey, VP of Environmental Sustainability at Clorox, described the company’s extensive research on what motivates a consumer’s interest in the environment.

From these efforts, four key areas emerged:

  • Personal protection – What’s going in me/on me/around me (and my family)?
  • Cost — I save $$ by reusing/reducing consumption.
  • Status — I let others know that I care about the environment.
  • Altruism — I do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Traditional environmentalists may squirm to hear it but good ol’ altruism was the minority factor in driving environmental interest today. On the other hand, personal protection was the heavyweight that held the top rank. This aligned with another study’s report that consumers identified more with “My Environment,” which they perceived to be inside their control, as opposed to “The Environment,” which they considered outside of their control.

With “health and wellness” and “environmental sustainability” representing the next two mega-trends on the rise, businesses can leverage themselves to these trends in two-and-a-half ways: By making existing brands more sustainable and by investing in new sustainable brands (internally or through acquisition). Morrissey went on about how Clorox is striving to do that with three of its brands:

  • Brita Water Filters, an existing Clorox brand, that concerns what goes “In Me.”
  • Burt’s Bees Natural Personal Care Products, a newly acquired brand that goes “On Me.”
  • Green Works Natural Cleaning Products, an internally produced new brand that goes “Around Me.”

First, Clorox jumped on the anti-plastic water bottle bandwagon by promoting Brita filters as sustainable alternatives to those bedeviled bottles (Clorox said, “Drink Responsibly”). With an added eco-twist to their marketing approach, one Brita TV ad shows someone running on a treadmill, trusty one-time-use plastic water bottle in view, while the words “30 minutes on a treadmill” flash across the screen. Next the phrase “Forever in a landfill” drove the message home as it appeared next to the plastic bottle.

Well, maybe not forever, but a one-thousand-year-decomposition time probably feels like forever to the average viewer. And with 60 million plastic bottles thrown away each day in the U.S., the Brita brand makes a great case for drinking “healthier, better-tasting water” with one Brita filter instead of the equivalent 300 standard bottles of water.

Still, one conference attendee asked why a take-back program for used Brita filters hasn’t been established in the U.S. like it has in Germany. Morrissey responded vaguely that Clorox is “working on that as well,” which goes to show that environmental sustainability is, of course, an ever-continuing process for any business or individual, and that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a “perfectly green” product. Still, since Clorox/Brita launched this sustainable marketing effort, the brand has seen double-digit growth from previously flat to declining sales.

However, Burt’s Bees comes pretty darn close to green product heaven, and Clorox knows it. Morrissey described Burt’s Bees as “an environmental exemplar within our walls, and that’s been very valuable.” When Clorox acquired Burt’s Bees late last year, Morrissey admitted their first goal was “not to screw up this business.” Everyone in the audience got a chuckle out of that, to which Morrissey replied, “No, we’re serious.”

Leveraging sustainability for Burt’s Bees is fairly simple considering their mission is “to make people’s lives better every day NATURALLY.” And they live by it. Embracing “The Greater Good Business Model,” Burt’s Bees takes the highest level of social responsibility by incorporating environmental and humanitarian concerns into their natural ingredients and product processes. In terms of marketing these natural lip balms and lotions, Clorox is trying to let its products speak for themselves because “sustainable practices yield sustainable results” — which in this case, can mean growth and lots of it.

green work small The final technique for leveraging Clorox in a sustainable market has been through its first new brand in 20 years — Green Works natural cleaners. Concerning the “Around Me” environment, these products are described as “99% natural,” biodegradable, not harmful to animal and aquatic life, non-allergenic, plant-based, and (deep breath) having transparent ingredients and recyclable packaging. According to a blind consumer test of Green Works cleaners against conventional cleaning products (some owned by Clorox as well), Green Works is reported to have performed as well as or better than the leading conventional cleaners. But I’m left to wonder, What exactly is in that 1% unnatural part of the cleaner, and is it harmful?

“This is a big deal for Clorox. We’re the first major … player to enter natural cleaning. What we hope to do is mainstream these products.”

–Bill Morrissey, the Clorox Company

In their attempt to mainstream these products, they twice had to delay launch to get it just right. Characterized as “powerful cleaning done naturally,” Clorox is so convinced about the new Green Works brand that they have not only the Clorox logo on the label, but also U.S. EPA Design for the Environment accreditation for “environmentally preferable chemistry,” and a vetting and endorsement by the Sierra Club, who also has their logo pasted on the label (although not without backlash from both its members and many other nonprofits for doing so).

So a bleach company is now in on the natural cleaners market; $6 million in the first three months in, in case you were wondering. But perhaps an even bigger surprise came during the Q & A session when Morrissey who — unprompted — started to protest that “bleach is a very sustainable product.” I know my ears about fell off when he said that, and as he went on to explain further a simplified version of chlorine bleach’s stain-fighting chemistry.

I applaud Clorox’s efforts to clean a little greener, but if that means exposure to a chemical that “can cause irritation of the eyes, skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal tract” as well as “severe corrosive damage” to those areas when met with high doses, as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported, I have to scratch my head in doubt. The words “can be fatal” on the side of a bleach jug just don’t seem to jive with my (and I would think most people’s) idea of a product being “more sustainable than everyone thinks.” Perhaps he should have stuck to talking about Green Works instead of trying to make bleach sound green.

At least Morrissey did acknowledge the inherent unsustainability of Clorox’s GLAD plastic baggie line. Well, we’ll give ‘em the benefit of a doubt. Maybe Clorox reuses them.