With all the talk and shtick over “green” products, it’s easy to forgot that Tom’s of Maine has long been a leader in natural consumer products and sustainable business practices. Started in 1970 with a $5000 loan, the company’s products now take shelf space at 40,000 retail outlets, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. From its beginnings, with its groovy ClearLake Laundry Detergent, Tom’s has still shown product innovation, most recently with its new line of toothpaste. Colgate-Palmolive bought 84% of the company in 2006, but one important stipulation of the deal allowed Tom’s of Maine to continue its good-for-the-earth business practices without interference from above.
I was reminded of Tom’s of Maine at a visit to the dentist earlier this week. Like many in the medical field, pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods (CPG) company reps constantly harass my dentist, insisting that products like Listerine (which is full of alcohol and harshly dries your mouth), should be not only part of her patients’ regimen, but part of the dental exam, as well. Company sales reps want us to use our products not for health, but for profits. Nevertheless, that little episode shows why it is so difficult to escape the barrage of CPG marketing, and with the confusion over greenwashing, Tom’s reminds us how to just walk the sustainable walk while talking the talk.
The quest to have pure, natural consumer products is not always an easy one. Several years back, Tom’s of Maine introduced a ginger flavored toothpaste, which sounded great until I tried it, leaving me blanch at the taste of dirt or a really bad stir-fry. But overall, Tom’s succeeds because the Kennebunk, Maine-based company combines creativity with earth-friendly business practices. One example is its new line of “Wicked Fresh” oral hygiene products, which offer a layering of botanical oils which claims to freshen your breath, but not leave your eyes welling up as if you were tear-gassed. The product uses licorice root, a timeless herbal remedy that treats a host of ailments, but that also has a flavor that repels many of us. Tom’s developed a process that eliminates the strong flavor while allowing the healthful effects to work within its toothpaste and mouthwash.
Tom’s of Maine has also followed a cradle-to-cradle philosophy for years, before it became a tired cliché bandied by many companies. Its products are encased in recycled propylene 5 plastic, and through its Preserve ® Gimme 5 program, it provides recycling bins at retail outlets where customers can dump empty product casings, allowing the firm to reprocess the plastic into razors or toothbrushes. Of course, the results are not perfect: many consumers don’t bother to bring the used packaging back to the store. But overall, Tom’s of Maine’s business practices and product messaging work: consumer goods that perform without polluting. Let’s look forward to watching what this little Maine outfit will introduce and teach us over the next 40 years.