Burt’s Bees is an incredible American success story. Roxanne Quimby’s venture into beeswax candles took her from New England craft fairs to lip balm and personal care products sold in thousands of drugstores across the United States, before she eventually sold her company to Clorox for $913 million in 2007. That acquisition has been one within a recent trend of large food and consumer packaged goods companies buying smaller ones for more “natural” or healthful products: Colgate-Palmolive owns Tom’s of Maine; Coca-Cola snapped up Honest Tea; Kraft has long owned Boca Burgers. Quimby has left quite a legacy: she helped revolutionize the personal body care industry and has spent much of her money on acquiring land in Maine that could be one of America’s newest, and largest, national parks in decades.
Thirty years after Quimby met a local beekeeper and launched Burt’s Bees, the company has over 170 personal care products that it proudly describes as overwhelmingly “natural.” Natural, in fact, is the mantra of the company’s latest sustainability report. In fact, a quick count reveals “natural” is peppered throughout this latest report over 120 times. So while Burt’s Bees obsession with “natural” is backed up by a long history of eschewing many synthetic ingredients, the constant repetition of the word raises eyebrows — especially by consumers skittish over a leading manufacturer of household chemicals and bleach owning this earthy brand.
So should we raise alarm bells over Burt’s Bees' infatuation with the natural label? Several leading companies have been the target of consumer advocacy groups and bloggers who have flogged the quick use of the “natural” label. Part of the problem is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only offers a nebulous definition of the term and is even less unclear about when and how companies should use it. Unlike “organic” or “fair trade,” no solidly defined regulation or standard exists for the use of the word natural, so the roll call of companies who have become ensnared in controversy is a long one. Shortly before the Unilever-owned ice cream company announced it would transition to fair trade ingredients, Ben & Jerry’s dropped “all natural” from its cartons due to pressure from the Center for the Science in the Public Interest. PepsiCo recently yanked the term from Naked Juice bottles after litigation. And now Nature Valley Granola bars, which has boasted the same term on its boxes for years, is under pressure to remove “all natural” from its boxes. Is Burt’s Bees the next to fall into this trap?
Depending on one’s view of the definition of “natural,” Burt’s Bees is on an impressive agenda. The company touts its entire portfolio to be comprised of 99% natural ingredients and of those, 57% of its 170 different items earned the 100% “natural” label. But as some consumers would counter, it is that 1% that worries them. Should they be concerned?
A close examination of the sustainability report certainly opens the company to criticism. Much of the report’s tone is smarmy and self-congratulatory. Clorox certainly had a hand in writing the report — the company’s increasing sales is because of access to its parent company’s sales and distribution network, and effusive praise for the parent company makes its way into the report. Plus the report points to a list of ingredients Burt’s Bees lists as “natural” ... though some ingredients such as baobab and acai berry make their way into only a few products. And at a time when more consumers question the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO), Burt’s policy towards such ingredients would give some consumers pause: The company only has a “non-GMO preference.” The company asks suppliers to sign a non-GMO declaration, but it is a request, not a requirement. Whether the company actually audits or tests ingredients for traces of GMO materials is unclear after reviewing the report.
But the ambiguity over GMOs is also a symptom of Burt’s Bees success. As the company continues to grow and score impressive sales figures, maintaining a transparent supply chain becomes even more difficult. A supplier may claim its ingredients are non-GMO, organic or fair-trade, but that supplier may also have vendors who are not telling the entire truth about their sourcing. And marketing-speak aside, Burt’s Bees does a solid job of outlining the challenges it faces in its quest to ditch synthetic materials altogether. One synthetic ingredient, phenoxyethanol, is a preservative that prevents mold and bacteria from growing in its products — and as of now the company claims a “natural” alternative does not exist. Phenoxyethanol, incidentally, is an approved ingredient and sanctioned by none other than the Natural Product Association.
Burt’s Bees is a prime example of how no company is perfect, nor ever can be, but can strive to do even more. Within the sustainability report is a discussion about how the company wishes to move forward in the future. As the company continues to review its ingredients, it is embarking on what it describes as a “whole systems” approach across the value chain, from the points at which ingredients are sourced to how products are disposed throughout its distribution channels. Self-congratulatory and eye-rolling? As is the case with many CSR reports, yes. Is it transparent and engaging? In Burt’s case — yes, as well. Eye-rolling aside, we need more firms like Burt’s Bees, not less.