Doomed to fail for calling itself Honest? What can we learn from 'Honest' mistakes?

When a brand chooses to call itself “Honest,” it could be asking for trouble. Just ask The Honest Company. The name alone sets itself up for expectations that may be unrealistic. Honest Abe, the moniker given to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was a title he earned through his honorable business transactions, not one he called himself. It’s no wonder, then, that The Honest Company falls short of the mark.

Recently, the label agreed to pay $1.55 million to settle a class action lawsuit. The laundry detergent is advertised as not containing potential irritant sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a surfactant which, when mixed with other chemicals, can produce carcinogens. (See label above where it says “Honestly FREE of.”) Yet when The Wall Street Journal ran a report after examining the formulas—oops!—there it was lurking in the ingredients.

The Honest Company then did something worse. Rather than being, um, honest, they maintained that it was not SLS in the formula but sodium coco sulfate, a lesser culprit. I have to wonder, who was answering these questions? Surely, a chemist for the company would know that sodium coco sulfate, in fact, does contain SLS in it. Was this some misguided spokesperson? Perhaps a costly oversight? The Honest Company couldn’t be lying, could they?

It’s these types of dubious practices that make a mockery of its name. From product recalls to mistaken ingredients on the labels, the mounting claims against Jessica Alba’s business venture don’t bode well for a line that promises transparency and safety as its hallmark.

Maybe it’s not their fault. When a company is so big, perhaps there is too great a distance from the supply chain to the chain of command. That’s why I called the celebrity-fronted brand into question a while ago here, not over its products but over misplaced trust. It does make me wonder what the rest of the natural beauty and personal care industry can take away from its message.

Are we asking too much of our natural brands? Can they ever measure up? Click To Tweet

As a community, we hold up natural brands to higher scrutiny than other products. We want our clean products to be squeaky. We expect them to perform equally, if not better, than their conventional counterparts. We want to have easy access to them and to have a competitive price point and stable shelf life—all while containing fairly sourced, traceable, mainly organic ingredients that are often more expensive to obtain, yet without any of the cheap fillers or potentially hazardous preservatives that prevent them from degrading too soon. And most importantly, we want them to be honest.

With such high demands, can honest mistakes happen to anyone? Of course, they can and do. There is a learning curve that allows some leeway in this nascent industry.

We could examine the use of the marketing buzzwords “preservative free” or “chemical free” as a case in point. I don’t believe that the brands using these inaccurate descriptions intend to dupe us. (Well, at least most of them don’t.) Without any regulation for precise terminology, “preservatives” and “chemicals” are akin to toxic and unsafe for the green dilettante.

However, the informed green consumer now knows that a preservative-free formula that contains water-based ingredients is actually a bacteria- and mold-fest waiting to happen, so preservatives are not only desirable, but warranted. It’s the type of preservative that’s debatable. A chemical includes water and every other substance out there that’s bad, good, or irreplaceable.

The clock is ticking on these terms, though, and a “free from” claim may soon become the source of too many imbroglios—an expensive lesson The Honest Company can attest to. The one caveat would be in the case of allergenic ingredients that consumers need to avoid, like “nut free” or “gluten free,” where the label helps consumers choose products most suited to their needs. (Also see this article on Formula Botanica about “Free From” claims in the EU.)

Labels will have to reform because green beauty is growing, and we expect the industry to maintain the same ethical integrity it had from the outset. Still, I consider these “honest” mistakes because the brands that use them may not be aware of the emerging, approved lexicon. As “green” moves into the mainstream, adherence to “all natural” is becoming another slippery slope to navigate.

As 'green' moves into mainstream, adherence to 'all natural' is becoming a slippery slope. Click To Tweet

Perhaps the demands of manufacturing a natural product with a stable shelf life require more than nature intended. Once these home grown and heart centered companies enter chain stores, we hope for minimal dilution of the small brand, eco vibe that we love so much in privately owned businesses such as Blue Labelle SkincareEarthwise Beauty, and Stark Skincare, each of which epitomize the best of high performance natural formulas with the perfect shot of granola.

What strikes me in the industry’s expansion is that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to brands that tout themselves as natural. “Natural” demands attention to ingredients, sourcing, the earth. It becomes a mighty challenge to trace pure and ecological ingredients when a small brand needs to scale—both for the responsible consumer and for the owner. Mass marketing may even defeat the purpose of being an eco-conscious brand. That’s one reason why Jessica Lee, founder of Stark Skincare, doesn’t distribute to any retailer but keeps her brand close to home.

I know that S.W. Basics faced this issue when the Brooklyn-bred company needed to increase manufacturing of their hand-made collection to be sold at Target. Founder Adina Grigore and I schmoozed about their challenges at A Night for Green Beauty in 2015. Fortunately, Target supports their values and wants them to stay true to their origins—even while taking the time to field new suppliers of their signature five and under organic ingredients. But it’s not all roses even when finding reliable suppliers.

According to formulator and founder of MOSS Skincare, Celestyna Higgins, rose oil is a perfect example of where green and natural go awry. In order to obtain a tiny 5 mL vial of rose oil, she explained in a Facebook Group, over 10,000 roses require extraction.

“Assuming there are even 100 roses on one bush, that is 100 rose bushes for one tiny bottle. The amount of water and space to cultivate the amount of roses needed to sustain a rose oil biz is a lot. Not to mention the pesticides used in non-organic versions, and the harm those pesticides do to local animals and insects. It seems a little extravagant and wasteful, and those words do not resonate as eco-friendly to me.”

She continued that the same applies to wood essential oils, like rosewood and palo santo. “These are often not harvested sustainably and kill trees that are hundreds of years old,” she said. Undoubtedly, the list of obscure “green” practices under the rubric of natural products continues and seems to be a foreboding challenge for brands who want to expand.

But here’s the rub: Isn’t it the dream of nearly every small business to grow exponentially and possibly to be funded or bought out by a larger corporation in order spread their message more widely? We hashed out our mixed feelings when it came to True Botanicals receiving funding from Unilever not too long ago.

Surely, it would be unfair to demand that every natural brand dig deep into their small roots and remain there. And yet, perhaps, that is the nature of the beast that once they don’t, it’s harder to stay, well, honest. Look at the greenwashing that has consumed once privately owned Burt’s Bees, bought out by Clorox in 2007, and Seventh Generation, currently owned by Unilever. These brands are no longer the same, though you can find them at most grocery stores.

Fortunately, there is the flip side to sourcing natural ingredients that keeps it wholesome and clean, explained Celestyna in an email. “There are some natural ingredients that are not only incredibly beneficial to the skin, but also provide a great benefit to indigenous people and weaker economies traditionally dependent on destructive practices, like logging.”

She offered this example: “I LOVE using oils and butters from the Amazon because the astounding fertility of the plants equals mind boggling nutrition in the exotic fruits/seeds used for the oils. And these plants are basically self-sustainable—the Amazon just grows these native plants like crazy! Mother Nature’s doing all the work! Plus—bonus—in using the plants for oil/butter, it gives the local people an alternative to logging and farming which are the two largest responsible factors for the deforestation of the most diverse and abundant ecosystem on the planet. So that’s the opposite scenario.”

The other piece in the demand for natural products is that there are synthetic ingredients that are considered safe and don’t injure the environment, yet they are often shunned by the green community because they’re not “natural.”

“There is ALWAYS the risk of when demand grows—when green beauty goes mainstream—will the demand outstrip the supply and will things turn ugly and unsustainable?” Celestyna said. “Right now green beauty is so small and feel-good, but we humans have a way with our greed and our incessant desire for more…. That’s why I don’t think synthetics should be ignored or vilified—because a lot of times we can manage/scale the production there without quite such a cost to delicate natural resources. It is really extremely complicated and there are countless pros/cons to every viewpoint.”

 

Maybe “fail” in my heading isn’t the right way to describe The Honest Company. After all, the company’s sales surpassed $300 million in 2016. That’s not exactly a bad run. It’s possible “bit off more than it could chew” would be more accurate. The more forgiving will chuck it up to that learning curve.

Failed or not, the issue is: don’t call yourself honest, transparent, chemical-free, all natural, safe, non-toxic, preservative-free, cruelty-free, organic or any of the other trending catch phrases when you’re not. It won’t pass muster with any of us. If growth in this industry means degraded integrity, then count me out.