A current TV commercial promotes the environmental goodness of SC Johnson , the maker of Raid, Drano, Scrubbing Bubbles and Saran Wrap.
Hardly the kind of products that one associates with a pristine eco-system. In the commercial , CEO H. Fisk Johnson praises his father for removing chlorofluorocarbons from the company's products in 1975, three years before the government banned them, and brags about making products like Windex, Shout and Pledge "better for the environment and better for your family." My greenwashing radar was pinging away. If a company has to go back 37 years to find a good example of its environmental citizenship, how progressive can it be? But it also made me think of a common complaint by CEOs of big old-line companies that if they make any effort at environmental improvement they are certain to be criticized for not doing enough. I decided to take a closer look at what's actually in SC Johnson's products and what environmental watchdogs have to say. Ellis Jones, author of The Better World Shopping Guide, grades consumer products and companies on social and environmental responsibility. He gives SC Johnson a B-, above Procter & Gamble ( PG), which garners a C for a mixed track record, but short of the full B he gives to other mainstream companies that he sees making a serious effort. I'd agree with Jones' assessment. The company clearly is pursuing environmental initiatives on different fronts. But as a private, family-run business, it doesn't have to release very much information about itself. It takes full advantage of this by providing selective information about its eco-successes instead of being truly transparent. In November, for example, SC Johnson issued a press announcement touting a yearlong effort to reconfigure the way it packs its trucks to maximize space and use less gas. It claims to have reduced its annual truckloads by 2,100 trips, cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 1,882 tons and cut fuel usage by 168,000 gallons.
But when I called the company and asked for some context to judge how significant an improvement this is -- say, how many truckloads it started out with, or what portion of its greenhouse gases and fuel usage these numbers represent -- I was told it couldn't give me that information because it doesn't release financial information to the public. Similarly, in 2001 it devised its much-touted Greenlist , a process for rating the environmental safety of raw materials it uses on a scale of 0 to 3, according to standards that it claims exceeds regulatory requirements. Those with a 0 rating, "are used only on a limited, approved basis when there is not a viable alternative," according to the corporate Web site . A spokesman said in an email that 34% of its "raw materials have the least impact on the environment and human health," up from 12% in 2001. This represents progress of some sort. But when I asked for a list of its all its raw materials and its ratings for them, I instead got a selective list of improvements. SC Johnson has reduced the volatile organic compounds -- chemicals that easily vaporize into the air -- in some of its Pledge products, it increased the biodegradability of a cleaning product it sells in Europe, and it eliminated a 0-rated solvent from Windex.
Asked if any of the company's products are entirely biodegradable, the spokesperson explained that "it is difficult to say that an entire product is biodegradable even when many of its ingredients are." Asked if any are nontoxic, he noted, "We produce products that are safe and effective when used as directed. To label a product as non-toxic could be misleading and contribute to misuse of the product. Anything in excess has the potential to be toxic -- even water." Theoretically, I suppose this is true, but I can't remember ever seeing a warning label about eye irritants or the dangers of ingesting a bottle of drinking water. I give SC Johnson credit for removing toxic materials from its products and cutting down on its corporate pollution -- and for doing so of its own accord. And I'm not alone. Its Greenlist has attracted attention . But if the company is as serious as it claims to be, why hedge so much? In addition to carefully editing its disclosures, it relies heavily on adjectives that leave a lot of wiggle room when it discusses these efforts: Better, best, least, reduced, increased. A chemical that is the best for the environment out of all the choices considered isn't necessarily benign or the greenest choice available; it might just be less harmful than the other options considered. For a high-profile company like SC Johnson to spend so much energy touting its environmental progress only to stop so far short of transparency about its efforts is disappointing and frustrating. I don't believe this company deserves to be accused of "greenwashing." But this is one well-meaning giant that deserves more scrutiny than it's received lately.