Family-owned company’s internal Greenlist process has overseen a huge rise in the use of alternative sustainable materials

By Will Nichols, Source: TriplePundit

In the late 1990s, SC Johnson was faced with a problem. The 126-year-old family-owned company was keen to push its sustainability efforts further, but how could it make popular cleaning products such as Windex, Mr Muscle, and Pledge greener without losing any effectiveness?

The answer was provided by the Greenlist, a patented internal process that since 2001 has helped the company select ingredients based on environmental principles, forcing product developers to go well beyond legislative requirements.

“We wanted to say what are the very best ingredients we can use and how do we encourage suppliers to come up with improvements in chemicals and packaging,” Cindy Drucker, director of global sustainability at SC Johnson, tells BusinessGreen.

“All of our formulators and packagers are taught about our Greenlist process. So when a formulator either develops a new product or reformulates a product they have to use what we rank as better ingredients or better packaging.”

The system ranks chemicals on a scale from three, the best possible, falling down to zero, which require authorisation from senior executives if it is to be used.

When SC Johnson first started the programme, 18 per cent of its ingredients were classified as “better and best”, a figure that had reached 51 per cent by 2011. The company’s goal is to take the proportion of “better and best” ingredients up to 58 per cent by 2016, which might sound a modest rise, but according to Drucker is a tricky endeavour.

“The challenge is that consumers and retailers are looking for products that have an environmental or sustainability advantage but still have the price point, still have the efficacy of the product,” she says. “We’re very strict about that – when someone uses Pledge or Mr Muscle they want to be assured that product works how it worked for them and their mother and their grandmother and everyone else. That’s very important to us.

“But it gets harder the higher you get, because once you pick off the low-hanging fruit you have to constantly innovate and the innovations become more difficult. So getting from 51 per cent to 58 per cent is quite a large leap.”

Drucker says SC Johnson has worked in tandem with suppliers to meet its raised standards and has tied in bonus payments to Greenlist criteria. It also regularly reassesses the criteria to ensure standards remain high and offers Greenlist for licensing, although Drucker admits few takers have come forward.

The company has also introduced in-house training as part of a wider sustainability programme incorporating a series of goals it intends to meet by 2016.

Some of the objectives are already close to completion – over 40 per cent of SC Johnson’s electricity worldwide comes from renewable sources and it plans to increase the proprotion further with the building of two wind turbines at its Waxdale manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. The 212 million square foot facility already has a landfill gas-powered generator and should come off the grid entirely once the wind turbines are operational, taking the company past its goal of using renewable energy for 44 per cent of its electricity needs.

Other successes include reducing emissions from its factories 26 per cent since 2000, with a further six per cent reduction planned by 2016, and diverting 90 per cent of waste from landfill at seven of its operations around the world.

However, SC Johnson still has testing targets to reach over the next few years, such as increasing post-consumer recycled content in packaging to 30 per cent, using only sustainable palm oil, and cutting overall packaging by five per cent across all lines.

Drucker expresses confidence SC Johnson’s status as a private, family-owned corporation makes achieving these goals easier than it may be for companies that have to account of short-term stock market pressures.

“We’ve made tremendous strides over the years, but we never rest on our laurels,” she said. “We’re a fifth-generation company – our definition of sustainability is very much about the generations to come in the family business, we have a very holistic approach [and] all our goals are intertwined.

“But even though we are a privately-held company, we have to be competitive on our price and our offerings and the efficacy of our products that drive the marketplace. We’re continuing to align with the values of consumers and that makes us successful.”