Jessica Alba, sustainability entrepreneur, calls honesty the best policy

Consumer products companies seeking to make eco-friendly products more appealing to the average parent should study the script followed by Hollywood actress and young mother Jessica Alba, co-founder of The Honest Co.

Frustrated by her own struggle to find personal care and baby products free of certain chemicals, and disillusioned by the less-than-transparent disclosures of many category leaders, Alba teamed up two years ago with environmental scientist Christopher Gavigan (former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World). The goal: create formulations that she herself would be willing to buy for her family.

"Let's educate and comfort the world and show them an authentic reality of a business, one that is incredibly transparent," said Alba, explaining her motivations during the closing session at the 2014 GreenBiz Forum.

Her catalyst was simple: an allergic reaction while pregnant to a detergent traditionally regarded as one of the safest ones for babies. If adult skin reacted in this way, what about a newborn, Alba wondered.

Forced to find an alternative, she was amazed and annoyed by the difficulty of her search. She faithfully bought items marketed as natural or greener than average — those with the beige ugly packaging or pictures of nature — only to find these claims were often exaggerated. This, she believed, was a breach of trust, and she was determined to address the issue. "I knew there had to be one brand that families can go to," Alba said.

The Honest Co. is born

When it comes to families with young children, The Honest Co. wants to be that brand, selling everything from diapers to body wash to cleaning products to its new line of oral care products. (Deodorant is up next.)

One of the company's mantras is making it simple for parents to buy their stuff, so it created a membership model to get around the retail distribution faced by smaller eco-startups. For example, its Diapers & Wipes bundle is $79.95 for a month's supply of these items, shipped to the customer's home for roughly 35 percent less than what it would cost to buy them on an ad hoc basis. There are similar bundles for cleaning and personal care products ($39.95 per month for five items) or health and wellness items such as prenatal vitamins ($39.95 per month for two items). More than 90 percent of Honest Co.'s members are mothers, according to Gavigan.

"We tried to think of all the qualities we would want in a dream brand — savvy style, sustainability, extraordinary service and convenience, all wrapped in a passion for social goodness, tied with a bow of integrity and sprinkled with a little cheeky fun," says the company in its mission statement. "We knew it wouldn't be easy to juggle all these demands, but we're parents, we're used to multitasking."

So, sure, Honest Co. is driving out toxic chemicals, addressing packaging waste and materials, and striving for biodegradable ingredients, but you won't hear spokeswoman Alba geeking out about the science beyond this in her frequent blogs and social media rants. She's more interested in making these things part of the status quo. "This is a lifestyle — you need to make it digestible," she said.

What Honest Co. doesn't make itself — items including totes and wood toys — it sources through an initiative called The Collective. One example is a $400 crib made by Babyletto made from sustainably sourced pine and finished with non-toxic paints. Right now, for every four-way model sold, the company will donate another crib — designed for infants up to one year in age — to a family in need.

Challenges and what's ahead

Skeptics could debate whether or not certain Honest Co. products — particularly its disposable diapers — are really the best option for the environment.

"Every diaper that has been made since disposables came out is still in existence," Gavigan acknowledged during the GreenBiz Forum. But the company is committed to finding a biodegradable option over time, he said. Perhaps just as important, it is unusually transparent about its shortcomings — a policy Alba won't compromise. If Honest Co. hasn't managed to get rid of a particular ingredient, it will tell you, and it will tell you why. It's part of the company's mission to help parents, particularly mothers, understand their options.

Said Gavigan: "We don't talk about selling products or goods — we talk about touching future generations."

Photo via GreenBiz Forum 2014