When The Honest Company found itself forced to respond to a Wall Street Journal report in early March alleging that the company’s detergent contained “significant amounts” of Sodium Laurel Sulfate, or SLS, an ingredient the company guaranteed its detergent was free of, the company chose to deny the Journal’s allegation and discredit the methodology used by the independent labs conducting the analysis that found SLS in its product.
And according to the two independent labs performed the tests commissioned by the Journal fund that Honest’s liquid laundry detergent contains not “trace amounts” but “significant amounts” of SLS, comparable to levels found in Tide detergent, which is manufactured by P&G.
In response to the article, the company issued a statement on its blog claiming that Journal’s story was “factually inaccurate” and “misleading.”
“Despite providing the Journal with evidence to the contrary, the Journal has falsely claimed our laundry detergent contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS),” the statement read. “At Honest, we use Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) in our detergent and multi-surface cleaner.”
While the molecular makeup of these two ingredients are distinct, as the company claimed on its statement, the consensus among the chemists interviewed for the Journal’s story– including chemicals manufacturer Stepan Co., one of the country’s largest suppliers of SLS and SCS and David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that researches chemicals in consumer products– is that although SLS and SCS are not the exact same compound, SCS contains SLS.
Since the Journal first contacted the Honest Co. about the results of its investigation last fall, the company revised the language on its website from the “honestly free of” SLS to include “honestly made without.”
Christopher Gavin, Honest’s co-founder and chief product officer, told the Journal that the changes in the language on the company’s website were to”help clarify, educate and accurately represent the company’s position.” Also, he said the product labels would change to match the language and that the company had “no plans to reformulate its detergent.”
In addition to Honest’s laundry detergent, the Journal’s analysis also included Earth’s Best baby shampoo, which is manufactured by Hain Celestial Group Inc., which like the Honest markets its products by claiming to be “free of ‘harsh chemicals’ such as SLS,.
But according to the Journal, since it contacted Hain last fall about its analysis results, the company has taken several steps to correct the issue including removing its “‘no SLS’ claims on products that contain SCS” from products’ labels. Hain’s General Manager for Personal Care, Julie Marchant-Houle, told the Journal in an interview that the company also plans to reformulate the products that contain SCS with a different ingredient by 2017.
“We have no concerns about sodium coco sulfate, but we are trying to respond to consumers’ preferences,” Ms. Marchant-Houle told the Journal.
As the Journal reported, while there are no “regulatory guidelines for what makes household and personal-care products ‘natural,'” false advertising regulations do exist and marketing a product on a guarantee that it is free of SLS when it’s not, is at least questionable and at most deceiving.
By releasing this ridiculous statement claiming that the Journal “never even tested for SCS,” which is not even a question, and outlining the molecular details of SCS v. SLS misses the mark entirely.
It is obvious that the Honest company failed to accurately identify the problem and, consequently, to properly address the concerns raised by the Journal’s findings. The fact that SCS contains SLS and that Honest’s claims that its detergents are SLS-free is false is a marketing problem, and potentially a legal problem, that can be likely addressed by revising the language on the company’s website and product labels.
But Honest’s PR problem, which can pose a greater threat greater the company’s bottom line, was largely ignored in the company’s response. When the integrity and credibility of a company that sells and names itself after honesty and transparency is called into question by none other than the Wall Street Journal, a jargon-y and defensive blog post and a stealthy website copy refresh are not enough.
Where are the results of the review of the Journal’s methodology the company claims to have conducted and shared with the Journal dispelling the investigation’s findings? And why are there no plans to reformulate the detergent and move away from an ingredient the company claims “harsh” for its consumers?
It seems that the Honest Company’s PR strategy is to rely almost entirely on the celebrity status of Jessica Alba, the company’s co-founder and chief creative officer.
Honest’s response to this crisis is honestly disappointing and unfortunately, typical.
Hain’s PR response was simple and more effective than Honest’s response in at least four ways:
- The company did not attempt to deny the undeniable;
- The company outlined measurable and timely goals to address the issue;
- The company was ready and available to respond to the Journal’s story with a clear plan of action (which is to be expected considering the 3-4 month heads up given by the Journal)
- The company told the Journal that though it had been reviewing the its SLS-free claims since the spring of 2015 (before the investigations findings were shared), it decided to “remove its “no SLS” claims on products that contain SCS after being contacted by the Journal in November
In fact, Hain deserves major props for subtly admitting it had been aware of the issue prior to the WSJ investigation and for humbly admitting that the story propelled it to action. Bravo!