Fisk Johnson Challenges Companies to Move Beyond Incrementalism

Fisk Johnson Challenges Companies to Move Beyond Incrementalism

The head of one of the largest consumer products companies challenged his business colleagues, consumers and their political leaders to move off the "incrementalist path" to engage in more, and more substantial sustainability measures.

"We need disruptive progress," said Fisk Johnson, Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson, addressing the Ceres conference in Boston yesterday. Johnson is the fifth generation of his family to lead S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc., based in Racine, Wisconsin.

"We've taken a very incrementalist path," he continued. "We as businesses squeeze a little bit of waste here, reduce energy use there. But are we really making fast enough progress to head off the resource crunch and head off progress?"

Johnson described his company's path to move SC Johnson to reduce its footprint, including its landmark Greenlist program, a patented process that rates 95 percent of the raw materials used in SC Johnson's products. That process has helped the company gradually reduce the toxic and environmentally problematic ingredients in its products and packaging since its inception in 2001. In 2007, SC Johnson offered the Greenlist program to other companies royalty-free.

But Johnson admits that despite the program's acclaim -- it has won two Presidential Green Chemistry Awards -- it's inadequate, in terms of making a significant dent in global toxics use. "As much as we've worked, as much as we've accomplished, it's not enough," he said. "Even if every company on Earth emulated the practices of the best companies, it would not be enough."

Government needs to play a role, he said, and not just through legislation. "A plan is not leadership. It's getting people to act on that plan. Unless government stands up and says something is going to be a priority and provides incentives and leadership, we'll never move quickly enough."

Johnson expressed concern over the culture of consumerism, of which he acknowledged his company is a part. Change is needed, he said, but it will take a concerted effort among companies, consumers, and political leaders to create the level of change he says is needed.

As an example, he cited his company's success in China with flexible-pouch refills for cleaning products. The pouches allow consumers to refill a "trigger bottle" typical of many cleaning products by emptying the contents of a pouch into an empty bottle. The process reduces packaging waste by 75 percent. "Chinese consumers are happy to cut open the pouch and refill the trigger bottle," he said. "They like the savings. But in this country, a large majority of people didn't like the inconvenience." As a result, the product failed.

He called on consumers to be more receptive to environmental innovations that may require some changes of habits. But he called on companies to seek ways of avoiding the need to require trade-offs by consumers.

"It's incumbent on business to work harder to innovate on environmental improvements at little or no extra cost. And it's not without challenge or angst. When we decided to eliminate an ingredient from insecticide because we didn't like the environmental profile, you'd have thought that the sky was falling. I heard every reason under the sun why we couldn't do it. But we persisted, and we did it."

But not everything succeeds. In another instance, SC Johnson sought to eliminate chlorine from Saran Wrap, one of its bestselling products. The result was an inferior product that didn't perform as well. The company decided to stick with its environmental decision, despite the consequence that sales of Saran Wrap would decline significantly.

"Today, this product, which was around since my childhood, is almost gone," Johnson told the audience. But, he added, "We still feel this is the right decision. However, there are so many of those decisions you can make before you put yourself out of business."