How A Trip To The Brazilian Jungle Turned This Chemical Company Into An Environmental Pioneer

This series on Sustainable Solutions is brought to you by UPS.

Products like OFF! and Windex don't exactly conjure up images of environmental sustainability. 

But S.C. Johnson  —  the company that owns them as well as a bunch of other popular household products, like Ziploc, Shout and Glade — is one of the pioneers in eco-friendly innovation. 

The family-owned company, with international headquarters in Racine, Wisc., employs 12,000 people in 72 countries and  generates $7 billion a year in revenue. 

Its history dates all the way back to 1886, when the company was founded by Samuel Curtis Johnson. But the environmental activism really began with his grandson Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., who inherited the company in 1928 at age 28 and a few years later set out on a 15,000 mile adventure into the jungles of Brazil to study the Carnaúba palm because its wax was the principle ingredient in all of the company's products at the time.

Johnson was interested in the incredible resilience of the plant — called the "tree of life" by some Brazilians — as its wax protects it from the harshest droughts, its fruit is edible, its roots are used in medicines and its trunk and leaves can be used as building materials. He ended up establishing a plantation to sustainably supply the company’s needed wax.

His son Samuel ran the company for 46 years, and was once named corporate America's leading environmentalist by Fortune magazine. In 1975, he saw yet unproven research that suggested chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might harm the Earth’s ozone layer and consequently banned them from all the company’s aerosol products worldwide, despite the fact that it forced S.C. Johnson to pull out of the aerosol business in countries where they didn’t have a substitute formula.

Nevertheless, the move paid off. Three years later the United States and Canada banned the use of CFCs because of their threat to the environment and by that time S.C. Johnson scientists had discovered a cheaper and better substitute. The company saved millions of dollars and was well-established in CFC-free products by the time competitors caught up.

In 1990 the company commissioned a study, "The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior," that was the first large-scale survey to measure both green attitudes and behavior of consumers. The research was the precursor to Green Gauge— the world’s longest-running survey research program of environmental attitudes among consumers in the United States.

In 2001 S.C. Johnson developed the Greenlist process to classify ingredients considered for use in products by their impact on the environment and human health. The patented process includes ratings for more than 95 percent of the ingredients the company uses and is licensed to other companies royalty-free. 

By using Greenlist, S.C. Johnson eliminated a huge amount of pollutants from its products, including 1.8 million pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from Windex and four million pounds of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) from Saran Wrap.

According to the S.C. Johnson  website , Samuel C. used to say: “Am I an environmentalist? Yes. Am I a businessman? Yes. But what I am more than anything else is a grandfather who wants his grandchildren to have the same kind of place to live and grow up in as I did."

Current CEO H. Fisk Johnson took over the cause when his father died in 2004 and immediately advocated against the construction of two coal-fired plants in Oak Creek, Wisc.

S.C. Johnson has recently reduced greenhouse gas emissions with projects such as a factory powered by methane gas from a nearby dump in Racine (built in 2005), a wind turbine that helps run a plant in the Netherlands and several mini wind turbines that help power their  Lowell, Ark.  sales office.

The company is not without environmental critics. After praising the company for  "removing toxic materials from its products and cutting down on its  corporate  pollution,"  Eileen Gunn at The Street pointed out in 2007 that the privately owned-company provides "selective information about its eco-successes instead of being truly transparent."

When Gunn asked the company for a list of all of its raw materials and its Greenlist ratings for them, she instead received a selective list of improvements.

Gunn concluded:

[I]f 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.



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