SC Johnson boss: Business collaboration on plastic ‘just the tip of the iceberg’

EXCLUSIVE: Consumer goods giant SC Johnson's boss has praised the ambition of the organisations to have pledged to tackle plastic packaging under a new Global Commitment, but has noted that behaviour change and closing the loop will help accelerate action.

Launched on Monday (29 October), the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has already been signed by more than 250 organisations, including business giants, financial investors, non-profits and national Governments.

By signing, organisations such as Unilever, Danone and Pernod Ricard have vowed to increase the amount of reused or recycled plastics in new products and to innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be reused, recycled, or composted by 2025.

Among these signatories is SC Johnson, which owns brands such as Pledge, Glade and Windex, and notably adopted the tagline “a family company at work for a better world” earlier this year.

Speaking exclusively to edie about the potential impact of the Global Commitment, SC Johnson’s chairman and chief executive Herbert Fisk Johnson III praised the pledge for “uniting business, government and civil society” to act on plastic – but stressed that the solution to the challenge at hand was more complex than a plastic phase-out.

“Us meeting this commitment is just the tip of the iceberg – the real challenge is closing the loop, which entails getting people to reuse and recycle, as well as investment in infrastructure to ensure the plastic gets back into the product stream,” Johnson said.

These comments come at a time when the recycling rates in the US, where SC Johnson is based, are stagnating at around 26% – a trend that has largely been blamed on a lack of household collection and segregation schemes, insufficient infrastructure and the absence of a culture which encourages waste separation.

The Global Commitment has sought to address the infrastructure challenge by uniting 15 financial institutions with more than $2.5trn in assets under management, enabling them to collectively funnel $200m into venture capital funds.

But, according to Johnson, galvanising consumer action may be the biggest challenge the business community will have to face in the wake of the Global Commitment.  

For SC Johnson specifically, a difficulty lies in encouraging consumers to use concentrated cleaning products and to reuse their spray bottles and nozzles.

“I’m not trying to blame the issue on consumers by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s challenging to get through to the public – especially when people are bombarded with so much information when shopping,” Johnson said. “[Reuse] is simply not top-of-mind.”

Indeed, these challenges mean that SC Johnson now sells some of its most sustainable packaging and product options – including compostable Ziploc bags and bin liners made from 100% recycled plastics – exclusively through online platforms.

However, Johnson remains optimistic about the future. He explained that, as more initiatives such as the Global Commitment emerge, the public discussion and consumer culture surrounding packaging is likely to shift in a way that spurs behaviour change.

“It will really take all sectors of society coming together for us to play our part in solving this challenging issue,” he concluded.

A new badge of honour

With 95% of SC Johnson’s plastic packaging portfolio already classed as reusable, recyclable or compostable, Johnson explained that the company’s current focus is on developing a solution for hard-to-recycle Ziploc bags that places recycled content back into product-grade packaging.

To complement this initiative and to close the loop around plastics, SC Johnson is also moving to incorporate more post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic content into its packaging and minimise the amount of virgin plastic it sources.

So far, the company has switched its Windex bottles to 100% PCR alternatives and launched a washing-up liquid bottle made from 50% ocean plastic through its Ecover brand.

However, Johnson emphasised that the transition has not been so easy for some other product lines, largely due to the fact that PCR plastic does not always have the physical properties needed to safely house chemical-based cleaning products. This challenge has been compounded by the appearance of PCR plastic streams, which often appear “milky” or discoloured, according to Johnson.

“Our marketing team are worried that if our product doesn’t look absolutely pristine on-shelf, people won’t buy it,” he explained.

“In my mind, I would love this discolouration to be more of a badge of honour and a selling point. That doesn’t work so well today, but looking ahead, I think we will be able to do that as we incorporate more PCR content, because people will be thinking about the plastic waste issue in ways they haven’t before.”

Transparency transition

Away from plastics, Johnson told edie that SC Johnson’s next big sustainability focus was likely to be increased transparency and traceability, which opens the business up to wider scrutiny.

“We’ve had a big push recently around transparency and have talked openly about what goes into our products and the process we use to choose ingredients – that information has been laid out for the scrutiny of the world,” Johnson said.

“We take a very high road to ensure the claims we make around our products are not misleading. Sometimes that puts us at a competitive disadvantage, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Indeed, a recent survey by The Consumer Goods Forum and social change agency Futerra found that 90% of corporates believe their customers are more interested in transparency than they were five years ago, with 95% predicting that this interest will only intensify in the coming months.

Johnson revealed that achieving boardroom-level support for this action on disclosure was likely to have been easier for SC Johnson than for other similar corporates, as the business benefits from a “family-oriented” boardroom set-up where all action is centred around the brand’s purpose of “building a better world for the next generation”.

This purpose-led vision has led to a discussion around CSR becoming a mandatory fixture before all of the company’s operating committee meetings, with a requirement that each meeting should provide an update on how SC Johnson is delivering against its sustainability goals.

“Sustainability is embedded throughout the business, but it starts at the top – the set-up is such that we drive action from my office,” Johnson said.  “We have the advantage of being private, which gives us an opportunity to do the right thing for the long-term rather than focusing solely on the next quarter’s earnings.

“Profits, of course, are important because this is what allows us to keep our business strong – but it’s a means to the end and not the ultimate goal of our company.”

Sarah George

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