SC Johnson Settles Lawsuits Over Greenlist Logo

SC Johnson has settled two class action lawsuits that challenged its Greenlist logo -- an image the company put on products that met its internal standards for less-harmful products -- by agreeing to stop putting the label on Windex bottles.

"In retrospect. we could have done a better job at being more transparent and clearer with our label and what it meant," Fisk Johnson, SC Johnson's chairman and CEO, told GreenBiz.

SC Johnson — whose brands include Windex, Glade, Raid, Shout, and Ziploc — created Greenlist, a process for bringing green chemistry to its products by rating raw materials based on their environmental and human health impacts, in 2001, and began putting a Greenlist logo on products that met certain criteria in 2008.

But questions arose over the legitimacy of the label and what it meant, since all product vetting was conducted only by SC Johnson, and not a third-party certifier, as with most credible green labels.

The lawsuits, settled for undisclosed amounts, had been brought by individuals in California and Wisconsin, who argued that the use of the Greenlist logo on Windex products did not clearly show it was an internal process as opposed to a third-party seal, and implied that these products were made with environmentally friendly ingredients. Product packaging included the Greenlist logo and the statement, "Greenlist is a rating system that promotes the use of environmentally responsible ingredients," found behind the packaging label.

SC Johnson said it used the Greenlist logo to show that Windex products met the company's highest environmental ratings. "The environment is something that I am incredibly passionate about. It's something we've been working on for literally four decades, and I have to say that when you're out in front of an issue like this, it means that you're not always going to get it completely right, as was the case with this particular issue," Fisk Johnson said.

While the use of the logo brought about accusations of greenwashing, the Greenlist process itself has been lauded with a U.S. Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, and has helped SC Johnson continually reduce the environmental impacts of its ingredients.

The company said that product reformulations have reduced volatile organic compounds by 48 million pounds in the last five years, and led to SC Johnson ordering suppliers to no longer use hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates in product fragrances.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, SC Johnson would likely have had to rethink how it portrays Greenlist on it products due to new guidelines coming from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission later this year.

Proposed changes [PDF] to the Green Guides, formally called the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, say that it is deceptive to falsely imply that a product has been endorsed or certified by a third-party group. The guidelines also discourage the use of general environmental benefit claims, including logos, like Greenlist, that lack specific qualifications about product attributes.

"Where I'd like to get to is full transparency around our Greenlist system: How we rate our chemicals, why we rate our chemicals the way we rate them, and do it in a consumer-understandable way," Johnson said.

Guidelines aside, the settlement of the lawsuits allows SC Johnson to remove a nagging reputational problem. Says Kelly Semrau, the company's senior vice president of global corporate affairs, communication and sustainability, "We want to simply learn from the experience and move on.”

Johnson also thinks a big problem is that consumers are so confused by the varying green labels, certifications and seals that they don't trust any of them.

"I would love to get to a point where everybody looks at chemicals the same way, and it's got to be based in science, so that we have a common set of standards and a common language that we use to talk about those standards," Johnson said. "But honestly, we are a long way from getting there. There is too much hysteria out there not grounded in science, and there is too much greenwashing going on out there on the industry side and we need to move in a better direction."