In November of last year, under pressure from consumers and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would remove several toxic ingredients from its baby products by the end of 2013. Last week, it agreed to remove additional chemicals and clean up its adult products by 2015.
The Environmental Working Group acknowledged that this is, by far, the biggest move from any major personal care product company. Ever.
When I covered the news last year, I wondered about the ethics behind the shift—and how it would affect natural companies, who have been acting responsibly and from a core values place for years. Unfortunately, most of these companies don’t have the same advertising budgets to communicate their visions and often sell their products at higher price points because of the cost of natural ingredients.
What’s the impact on naturals?
J&J sourcing natural alternatives for some of the most widespread cosmetic chemicals (the company has even agreed to phase out parabens and phthalates) could likely make natural alternatives more affordable for all companies. It has become more and more apparent that in order for large-scale change to occur, powerhouses like J&J need to be on board.
On the other hand, if J&J patents new technology or works exclusively with natural suppliers to produce safe(r) and effective products, it could put some natural brands at a disadvantage.
Regardless, we can’t deny that these efforts do something invaluable: They bring safer products to more people and raise the bar in the conventional personal care industry. What makes this pledge even more commendable is that while the move was strategic, it was also quite risky. As a recent, highly circulated AP article reported last week:
"Johnson & Johnson’s decision requires the company to navigate a public relations tightrope, by portraying itself as willing to... Make extensive changes while simultaneously reassuring consumers that its existing products are safe."
How to earn customer loyalty
In the natural products industry, consumers have long realized that many mass companies, including J&J, use questionable ingredients. But by publicly admitting that it is time to change, J&J has probably brought this issue to light for thousands of other consumers who never knew something was wrong. The fact that these changes won’t take effect until 2013 and 2015 means J&J customers may turn to naturals.
In addition to the quality of their products, what natural personal care companies, particularly in the babies and kids space, do so well is humanize their brands and educate about their products in a way that is authentic and transparent. This is what allows a company to go beyond making a sale—it’s what earns trust and loyalty. When it comes to natural kids products, many of our favorite companies are mom-run, which allows them to form a deep connection with their target customer.
Natural companies are doing many things right, but now is the time for them to really step up and communicate their message—in stores, through sampling programs, with social media, blogs and focus groups.
With this most recent announcement, J&J also seems to realize the importance of how it tells its story. This became apparent with the launch of its new web site, safetyandcarecommitment.com. The home page reads like a carefully crafted opening paragraph, presenting J&J as a caring and trusted protagonist: “Safety is our legacy.”
Building a brand legacy
I spent a good deal of time reading through the site, watching the video interviews with quality assurance and R&D directors that outline the company’s processes. This, to me, is almost an even more important step than the reformulations. I don’t feel that safety is the company’s legacy. But I think maybe, maybe, some day it could be. And this site is more proof that J&J is attuned to the wants of consumers and the future of the industry.
While I don’t think it’s an entirely clear-cut issue, I truly applaud J&J for leading the charge for the mass market. This big shift is needed in order for products to be safer for everyone, and in many ways I think it has defined the direction of the entire personal care industry.
I am appreciative of what J&J is doing not for the natural products industry necessarily, but for consumers who maybe didn’t know about what was really in their products—and maybe never would have known.
More than anything, though, I am appreciative that even in the absence of million-dollar marketing campaigns or legislative change, authentic, compassionate, informed voices are heard.
For more ways to get involved go to safecosmetics.org.