The Secret to a 'High-Trust' Organization
Ph.D. physicist and fifth-generation chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, Fisk Johnson, opens up about how to place principles at the heart of a business, how science is a tool for transparency, and why putting people before profits is the key to success.
By Elie Dolgin, July 13, 2017
Fisk Johnson always had a passion for science, even before entering the family business. He received five degrees including a B.A. in chemistry and physics, a Master of engineering, an M.S. in physics, an MBA and a Ph.D. in physics, from Cornell University before joining the company in 1987. Today, as chairman and CEO, one of his top goals is to push the entire consumer packaged goods industry for more transparency and disclosure. Talking with Elie Dolgin (E.D.), Johnson (F.J.) explains his approach to ingredient selection and how running a family-owned company lets him put people before profits.
E.D.: Through ongoing efforts to be transparent, SC Johnson has been fiercely honest about what it puts inside its products, more so than any of its competitors. Why do you choose to diverge from industry standards to such a degree?
F.J.: People should have the opportunity to know what they’re buying. Most people won’t look into every detail or every ingredient, but I think they appreciate that we put all the information out there for the world to scrutinize. Also, for decades we’ve put a lot of effort into choosing safe and environmentally sound ingredients for our products. We want people to understand the care we put into those decisions.
E.D.: How does SC Johnson determine whether materials are safe or best for the environment?
F.J.: We have a selection and rating process called Greenlist that we run all our ingredients through. It began in 2001, and soon we will publish the scientific criteria behind that program. It’s basically a step-wise, risk-assessment process that evaluates ingredients for impacts on human health and the environment. If at any step, an ingredient doesn’t pass our standards, which are much higher than most accepted safety thresholds, it is automatically eliminated from consideration.
E.D.: Under your watch, the company removed a chlorine-containing ingredient from its best-selling Saran Wrap at a great cost to margin and market share. Any regrets?
F.J.: No regrets. If chlorinated plastic materials are incinerated in the waste stream, they emit dioxins, which are a known human carcinogen. There is no known safe dose or threshold below which dioxins won’t cause cancer. While many of our competitors have not made the switch, I sleep better knowing we made that change.
E.D.: Looking at the industry, do you see any problem areas?
F.J.: There are companies making claims that range from outlandish and false, such as implying products are “chemical-free” or have impossible attributes, to things that are not untrue but are very misleading. These misleading claims are sometimes the most insidious. How can you trust a company like that?
E.D.: How can you compete with companies that make confusing or misleading claims?
F.J.: It is a hard fight to fight. We have high marketing standards to make sure we’re not misleading customers, and I hope that customers recognize that SC Johnson has tried to be honest and transparent all along. But sometimes you simply have to accept you are at a competitive disadvantage. Hopefully, doing the right thing will help you in the long run.
E.D.: Would using more natural ingredients help combat this sort of mixed messaging?
F.J.: It’s important to remember that natural doesn’t necessarily mean better. Nature creates some of the most environmentally persistent chemicals like methyl chloride, found in seaweeds, sponges and evergreen trees; potent toxicants like botulinum toxin or ricin; and potent carcinogens like acetaldehyde and benzofuran, which are examples of naturally occurring chemicals that are found in coffee. So, the key in determining whether a particular ingredient is safe, is not whether it is natural or synthetic, but looking more deeply at the underlying science. We’ll always use the best ingredients for our customers.
E.D.: What’s the most important factor in that choice?
F.J.: Any ingredient can be a hazard if used at a very high dosage — even water can be toxic. What matters is the amount that our customers can use safely and how to manage that exposure. For every chemical that might cause concern, we determine a maximum exposure threshold and significant safety margins. The one exception is things that might be skin or eye irritants, but are still safe environmentally and free from any chronic health effects. These might be chemicals that are needed for a product to work effectively, but if used properly, for example, while wearing gloves, are absolutely safe to use. In these cases, we are clear with instructions and warnings.
E.D.: Do you take the same approach to evaluating fragrances?
F.J.: Yes. There are close to 3,000 different chemicals used in fragrances. We have painstakingly examined each one and decided to eliminate about 1,500. We either didn’t like the toxicity profile or there wasn’t enough data to prove to us they were safe. Last year, we launched the first air freshener with full disclosure of every fragrance ingredient. This year we will be the first to disclose all ingredients in an air freshener with all-natural fragrances. No other company has taken these steps.
E.D.: At SC Johnson, you use the Greenlist process to eliminate chemical ingredients or packaging materials deemed harmful to the environment or human health. Why did you implement this process?
F.J.: The idea was to go from being reactive — getting out of ingredients as information emerged that they might not be good to use — to being proactive and improving our products on a continual, systematic basis. The Greenlist process helped us turn from just eliminating the 'bad' to consciously focusing on switching to the 'better'.
E.D.: Was it difficult to implement?
F.J.: It was not a small task. There were tens of thousands of raw materials and components, and countless ways to classify and rate them, so we had to figure out how to simplify and systemize the approach. The biggest challenge by far was one of internal resistance. People were concerned it would increase costs or reduce efficacy of our products and put us at a competitive disadvantage. That certainly ended up being the case in certain instances, like when we eliminated some of the insecticides in our bug killers. But, because it was so important to make those changes, we accepted those costs or changes in efficacy.
E.D.: What do you want your legacy to be?
F.J.: If SC Johnson continues to grow, be strong, and contribute positively to the world by making quality products that our customers love — if it can remain a great place to work and a leader on environmental and social issues — I have protected and upheld the principles that are the company’s foundation. Then I will feel like I have done my job.
In 2001, SC Johnson developed Greenlist, a tool to evaluate ingredients based on environmental and human impact. The company uses a four-step process to assess ingredients, which get a 'pass' or 'fail' based on established criteria. Although the company does the evaluation, third party assessment of supplier-provided data, along with scientific literature and test data, ensures a scientifically robust evaluation of ingredients against the criteria. A pass moves an ingredient to the next step. A fail triggers a risk analysis that considers how consumers use and interact with products. This determines an 'allowable' level of the ingredient permitted for use, based on the company's highly conservative standard. If a material exceeds the allowable safety threshold, it will be eliminated from products through reformulation. A similar process is used to assess packaging materials, with appropriate relevant criteria.
This article was created for SC Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine's board of editors.