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Sherrell Dorsey headshot

Did Hyperbole or Social Responsibility Push Johnson & Johnson to Reformulate Its Baby Products?


In an increasingly responsive environment, consumer influence brings brands dangerously close to the edges of both innovation and implosion. Social media, the mother of all sounding boards for consumer activism, advocacy and subsequent protest, fuels the fire of messages that easily become distorted or misguided -- making for murky water and confusion among consumers who mean well as they seek to protect their own best interests and demand transparency from the companies they support. Responding in such an environment requires that brands take consumer concerns seriously and adopt policies and practices that re-instill consumer trust.

Such was the case for personal care products giant Johnson & Johnson, which suffered a very public battle when the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) called for a consumer boycott of the company over potentially cancer-causing chemicals found in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. A stream of fiery darts were thrown at the brand when CSC purchased and reviewed the shampoo sold in 13 countries and discovered that the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo sold in the United States contained two carcinogens: formaldehyde and 1,4,-dioxane. These ingredients, however, were not formulated in the shampoos sold in other countries. Parents and special interest groups were unrelenting in their outrage towards a brand they trusted to care for their children.

In its initial response, Johnson & Johnson did its best to assuage concerned parents by admitting that the ingredients were indeed included in their products, however, at trace levels deemed safe by toxicologists and governing agencies. Global toxicologist, Susan Nettesheim, who spoke with TIME, explained that the formaldehyde in solution (as in shampoo) is not the same as the formaldehyde gas that, when breathed, is carcinogenic. Also, as she tried to explain, the formaldehyde in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo biodegraded and, as a result of bath water not being hot enough, was unable to turn into gas. Parents and interest groups were not assuaged by this answer; and with good reason—they’ve been conditioned not to be.

The dynamic consumer shift to ecologically sound practices and processes has cultivated a demographic largely influenced by fear. To date the European Union lists 1,373 substances prohibited in cosmetics products. It is only appropriate for consumers to call into question the governance of chemical regulation and safety when standards elsewhere seem much more stringent.

From food dyes linked to hyperactivity and ADHD in children, to parabens discovered in breast cancer tissue studies, the message that the media, proponents and marketers have been selling is steady and clear: chemicals = death. Simply put, the breakdown in consumer trust among brands and government has led to consumer outcry for transparency and protection from brands that seek to profit from misleading marketing messages.

While some may argue that chemophobia presents an irrational fear of chemicals rooted in speculation and not facts, consumer demand and critique of chemical safety and practices will continue to grow and become ever more amplified by an increasingly connected social media environment.

Alternatively, mitigating formaldehyde fears in its shampoo was not Johnson & Johnson’s direct objective. Protecting their wholesome brand image and instilling trust in parents was far more valuable than arguing in favor of questionable chemical safety.

It was in this letter to Lisa Archer, the director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, that Johnson & Johnson publicly course-corrected their narrative and re-affirmed their core values:

“But we understand that the bond of trust we have with the people who use our products often means going beyond safety alone. We listen to consumers, and respond to their needs and values, and their desire for products that are more sustainable and gentle on both people and the environment. We are continually making changes as we seek the next generation of pure, mild and gentle ingredients that parents can continue to use with complete confidence and peace of mind.”

By acknowledging consumer fears, Johnson & Johnson provided agency and recognition to concerned consumers.  By promising to clean up its products and remove chemicals of concern across all of its baby products by 2015, Johnson & Johnson demonstrated leadership that expertly reinforced commitment to its core values. Brands across all industries and sectors vying for consumer trust can learn substantial lessons from Johnson & Johnson’s ability to respond with care, shamelessly calm consumer fears, improve transparency, and re-establish trust and confidence.

Companies that make the active choice to dismiss consumer complaints will do so at their own peril, effectively staging a war that will begin and end at the check out counter.

Image credit: Flickr/quinnanya

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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