The Honest Company’s Sorry (Not Sorry)

March 14, 2016 14:18:59 Posted at March 14, 2016 14:18:59
Maria Posted by Maria
Dimitrios Kambouris/ Getty Images

Last week, the Wall Street Journal wrote an article about a chemical found in The Honest Company’s laundry detergent that was on the company’s own “banned” list (click here for a refresher).

At the time, Honest called the report “reckless.” I thought that was a bold move, considering the WSJ confirmed the results with two independent lab tests. But Honest has never been known to take criticism of its products lightly. Late Friday, we received a statement from the WSJ that read as follows:

The Journal’s report is accurate, fair and meets the Journal’s established and trusted high standards, including giving the Honest Company numerous opportunities to respond to our findings. We took great care in preparing this story, relying on two tests with two different labs and numerous experts during an extensive and lengthy investigation.

There is no need to dissect that statement as it is very clear that the Journal stands behind its reporter and due diligence process.

The Honest Company has responded to the initial article twice on its website (you can read here and here – they are longer than the WSJ’s statement, which is why I’m not posting in full). Let’s start with the blog written by the company. I carefully read the statement several times, because science isn’t exactly my forte. Here is what I saw: they walked back from “reckless” and call the WSJ story “disappointing.” Honest says that the paper purposely is out for their reputation. (This seems like a defensive and pouty tactic… the Journal has written previously about Honest’s success as a start-up.)

Honest’s wording is, to me, soft: “Despite providing the Journal with evidence to the contrary, the Journal has falsely claimed our laundry detergent contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS).” What does this mean, exactly? SCS doesn’t contain SLS? The Journal’s two independent tests were wrong? The Journal purposely lied and/or fabricated the results? If you are saying the Journal is out to harm you, then back it up with a solid argument. Why would the Journal want to hurt Honest – do they have something against French bulldogs on diapers?

This is why the WSJ holds more weight – because they are clinical. According to the initial WSJ findings, Honest detergent uses SCS, but SLS is part of the makeup of SCS. Honest’s blog breaks down the difference between the two, going so far as to list the carbon chains and the CAS number, an international identifier of chemicals. This is supposed to prove a point: SLS and SCS are two different chemicals, but this is not in dispute by the WSJ, and neither is the carbon chain. The core issue is whether or not the laundry detergent contains an ingredient that Honest deems a “toxin.”

To me, Honest seems evasive, like whoever wrote this blog had their fingers crossed behind their backs. Honest break down the science, talking about compounds and building blocks and formulas in a consumer-friendly way. (And let me say here I am exactly Honest’s target audience: 36, two young children, lean toward eco-friendly products.) It’s not that it’s hard to understand the science (it isn’t), it’s that it feels shifty.

I can easily buy Honest products where I live and I don’t – this is why. And it’s not just because of Jessica Alba, it’s because there is something so full of sh-t about the combination of twee-ness and scare tactics they use in their marketing. I can’t tell if they are arrogant and/or out of their depth in the manufacturing of eco-friendly products, but it’s off-putting. This brings me to Jessica’s blog, which was at the top of Honest’s website all weekend.

She goes straight for the mom jugular: the word “health” is used several times, as well as linking Jessica’s own childhood asthma to her commitment to making safer alternatives to household products. She talks about transparency and how she’s changed lives and earned the trust and confidence of moms.

Between her personal plea and the company’s scientific approach, this was meant to put forth a double defense: emotional and logical. Did it work? Well here’s the thing; people who love Honest products will continue to love them. People who are skeptical of the company will continue to be skeptical. But Honest, more than any other celebrity lifestyle company I can think of, puts such a huge burden on its customer to trust them. We are supposed to believe the word of Jessica Alba above all else. Even when a reputable paper presents scientific evidence that disputes what she is saying, we are supposed to take her word for it. This “mom-to-mom” relationship comes off desperate. If someone is constantly saying, “you can trust me,” doesn’t it feel a little untrustworthy?

The Honest blogs allow for comments, so I took a read through. Here is what comes up: questions and concerns about Honest’s manufacturing process. Jessica and her partners have been doing a lot of business in China, and to many, that doesn’t fit in with the California eco-friendly vibe they are going for. I think this will be the next big story. And more and more, the onus is being pushed onto consumers to read the fine print when it comes to Honest.

As I wrote on Friday, Forbes once said she sells peace of mind. Having to spend a Sunday reading through blog posts that explain chemical compounds, is that a consumer confidence booster? On the plus side, I kind of feel like a low-rent Erin Brockovich.

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