Jessica Alba’s eco-friendly household, baby, and skincare products company took another hit last week when the Wall Street Journal published a story alleging that it conducted tests with two different independent laboratories and found “a significant amount” of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) in its laundry detergent. SLS is one of the chemicals that Honest specifically claims its detergents are “Honestly Made Without,” (prior to the Wall Street Journal story, the claim was “Honestly Free Of”).
This is not the first time Honest has been under the microscope. There are two lawsuits that have been filed, one in California and one in New York, alleging that the company was dishonest with customers about the ingredients and effectiveness of its products. The company has claimed that both suits are baseless.
The real brand and reputation issues for Honest go beyond the obvious issue of whether or not a company that built its brand literally on the word “honest” is lying. It is as much about tone and substance.
In the blog that the company posted on its website after the Wall Street Journal story came out, Honest said that the Journal “falsely claimed our laundry detergent contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)” and then goes on to give a science lesson about the chemical differences between SLS and Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS), the ingredient the company says it uses in place of SLS.
What Honest is missing is that people aren’t interested in the number of carbon atoms in the ingredients or which carbon chains are isolated to make SLS versus SCS or that the two ingredients have different CAS numbers. What people want to know is how two independent laboratories both claimed to have found high levels of something Honest said it didn’t use and what Honest is doing moving forward.
Based on the Journal story, there seemed to be a lot of confusion in the production and manufacturing process with the detergent manufacturer (Earth Friendly Products, LLC) saying that its chemical supplier (Trichromatic West, Inc.) tests for SLS and the supplier saying this isn’t true.
A better—and more honest—response from the company would have been to say it would look into the roles and responsibilities of its manufacturer and supplier to make sure they were both meeting the company’s high quality standards, rather than just saying the independent tests were wrong.
Does Honest or anyone in its manufacturing and supply do its own testing to ensure quality control? If not, will they start doing this now? Is there a way that SCS could create a false positive for SLS? If consumers want to return their detergent because of these findings by the Journal, will Honest take the product back? These are the things the company should have focused on reacting to the story.
Even if there is not an actual problem (as Honest claims), a company needs to find a way to correct the perception of a problem. Whenever a company finds itself in crisis, it needs to focus on the path forward. And that path never includes sticking your head in the sand and pretending nothing is wrong.
Melissa Arnoff is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and contributing author to Tomorrow.