Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

CEO Shares How Transparency Helps SC Johnson Address Global 'Crisis of Trust'

By Mary Mazzoni
SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson (left) after signing the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy Global Commitment last year.

Overall trust in global institutions is in sharp decline. According to a 2018 Edelman survey of 9,000 people in nine countries, a little over half of the general population trust the business community. Less than 45 percent trust their governments or the media.

Top brands, including the family-owned household products company SC Johnson, are taking notice of these trends. "There's a crisis of trust across many sectors of society today, and for a business like ourselves, it's a huge issue," said CEO Fisk Johnson, a fifth generation member of his family to lead the private company.

"The risk to business from low trust has never been as high as it is today," Johnson told TriplePundit. "It plays a role in consumers' purchase decisions, in how people feel about working for a company, and in a community's goodwill toward that company."

Indeed, more than one in three consumers ranked "trust in the brand" among their top three reasons for purchasing a product, according to a 2018 survey from PwC. Likewise, 82 percent of institutional investors say “my trust in the company” is important when considering investments.

As part of an ongoing effort to build trust among its stakeholders, today SC Johnson announced a milestone nearly a decade in the making: Each of the company's nearly 6 billion global customers can now learn more about the ingredients in popular SC Johnson products like Glade, Pledge and Windex with only a few clicks on the Web. The announcement came along with a white paper on how transparency builds trust, created by SC Johnson and the market research firm GlobeScan.

3p spoke with Johnson by phone to learn more about this industry-leading transparency program and how it helps the company maintain trust at a time when it's in increasingly short supply.

Building transparency worldwide

"Research shows that transparency can build trust, but quite honestly, it's not really how I've thought about it," Johnson told us. "I've always thought it's simply the right thing to do. It allows people who buy our products to know what they're buying so they can choose what's right for themselves and their families."

SC Johnson launched its transparency program back in 2009 by making a list of ingredients available to U.S. and Canadian customers at WhatsInsideSCJohnson.com. The program extended to European customers in 2016, to the Asia Pacific market in 2017 and to the company's only remaining market, Latin America, this week.

Global customers now have access to a suite of resources detailing what ingredients SC Johnson uses and why. The company discloses product-specific information about more than 350 skin allergens and all fragrance ingredients down to .01 percent of the product formula. Last year, SC Johnson also became the first in its industry to make the science behind its ingredient selection program available to the public.

The company's peer-reviewed Greenlist program assesses the human health and environmental impacts of more than 3,500 ingredients, and NGOs were quick to praise the methodology when details became public.

“It is clear that SC Johnson’s Greenlist methodology was rigorously designed, and that the company is not afraid to evolve its methodology in its pursuit of safer products," Boma Brown-West, senior manager of the Environmental Defense Fund, told Chemical Watch.

Even the U.S. NGO Women’s Voices for the Earth, which previously criticized several of SC Johnson’s ingredients, was impressed by the move. Its director of corporate accountability, Sarada Tangirala, told Chemical Watch that the Greenlist methodology offers "a level of detail and specificity in its approach to chemical screening and safety that we have not seen before in a cleaning products company."

Pushing for market-wide change

Using its Greenlist methodology, SC Johnson has already banned more than 200 raw materials and more than 2,400 fragrance materials that meet legal and regulatory requirements but don't pass its internal muster. "Regulation is often slow to come to the forefront," Johnson told us. "It's important for us as a company to stay ahead of what's going on in our industry to make sure our products are safe."

In its home country of the U.S., the Wisconsin-based firm continues to advocate for product transparency at the federal and state levels. It was an early supporter of bipartisan efforts to modernize the federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and was one of the first CPG companies to publicly testify in support of strengthening the regulation. It also supported California's Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017, which requires all cleaning product manufacturers to disclose their ingredients.

The company is also something of a trend-setter in its industry. For example, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser announced plans to begin disclosing fragrance ingredients within two years of a similar announcement from SC Johnson. CEO Fisk Johnson bears the first-mover label with pride and says he hopes more CPG companies will follow suit.

"As far as I'm concerned, the more companies that jump on the transparency bandwagon, the better it is for everybody in the industry," he told 3p. "Now that we've broken the ice, I think a lot of other companies have seen the light of day and the value of this."

What's next for SC Johnson

"We've set the same standard for everybody around the world, and I don't think any other company has done anything close to what we've done on transparency from an ingredient standpoint," Johnson told 3p. "But this is a journey. We've got a long ways to go in terms of what we want to do to be more transparent as a company."

Releasing the Greenlist methodology was a big step. Moving forward, the company hopes to partner with a third-party organization to objectively test the methodology and explain it to the public, Johnson said. It also hopes to leverage its transparency program to map raw materials across its supply chain, although that may be a long way off.

"A supply chain in a company like ours is incredibly complex," Johnson explained. "Trying to trace our raw materials, from the very beginning, is an almost impossible task today. We're going to start moving along that path and do what we can, when we can."

The bottom line

Transparency can be a frightening proposition for any organization, a reality that isn't lost on Johnson and his company. But at a time when stakeholders increasingly expect more candor from the world's top companies, the upfront discomfort may well be worth it.

"There's always a risk when you're transparent about something that it may be spun the wrong way in the news and impact your business," Johnson told 3p. "It's easy to be really cautious and do nothing, but we felt so strongly about this being the right thing to do that we moved forward with it in spite of some of the challenges and risks."

Images courtesy of SC Johnson

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni