10 minutes with Christopher Gavigan, Honest Company
This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Christopher Gavigan, co-founder and chief purpose officer at the Honest Company.
Bob Langert: You studied behavioral psychology. Changing behavior is always a hard thing to do. Have you been able to apply that in your business?
Christopher Gavigan: People are creatures of habit and sometimes we fall into these habits and these habitual daily actions without really much conscious thought. I'm a firm believer that the best way to engage and apply corrective action or to shift people's mindsets is through a relationship of trust, emotion, empathy and vulnerability.
Consumers are looking for an advocate, they're looking for a friend, they're looking for some type of partner who they can trust, especially during the major life moments of having a new baby, a new home or a new family. They don't know who to turn to; there can sometimes be a generalized lack of trust and more of a distrust of certain institutions. So being one of the founders and a representative of the Honest brand, it's my job to uphold and express our brand values through all customer touchpoints such as in our written copy, visual representations of the brand, as well as through our products.
Langert: Tell me a little bit about how you put this into action.
Gavigan: In crafting our new line of Honest cleaning products, we’ve invested a lot of our research and development resources and countless hours towards innovation of efficacy and performance. The challenge typically in the green chemistry area is how to bring these plant-based technologies and proprietary formulas to the world, where, at the end of the day, a mom or the end consumer is really just wanting a cleaner to do its job, right? Show me performance. Show me results.
Therefore, you can have strong, powerful formulas, but you really need to be selective and thoughtful on all marketing, sales and education materials, choosing words that acknowledge the compromise in the traditional "green cleaning" space.
At the same time, we challenge the status quo in this space and showcase our relationship as a partnership. So, we say "This is clean," and it's a tagline, but we are really alluding to "clean without compromise." There's very intentionally a double meaning there. We think of compromise as very much a part of the traditional cleaning segment, so it's our job to remove the stigma and to express ourselves in a positive way. We aim to showcase the fact that in this shift, you no longer have to have a behavioral concession as you have in the past.
Langert: I know your company has been through some scrutiny and challenges on claims. Are they tough to deal with?
Gavigan: I would say personally it does hurt. It's highly disappointing to get attacked and to feel that your brand is not being represented in the marketplace as you had intended. We very intentionally named the company the Honest Company because honesty, openness and transparency are the principles at the foundation of the company and we always strive to showcase our ethos of commitment, not of perfection.
Langert: Has this hampered your company’s ongoing commitment?
Gavigan: In being a transformative company and a disrupter of the marketplace, you can expect to be challenged. So, it's not surprising, it's disappointing, and yet we are steadfast. We will continue to push even harder and work towards our mission, and we are not backing down from the challenge because we feel that our vision and our north star is going to be on the right side of history.
Langert: What is the status of transparency of ingredients in cleaning solutions?
Gavigan: Consumers are mandating that companies come to the table with openness. Just look here in the state of California. I’ve been working on it for well over a decade to get legislation to put cleaning ingredients on the label for the cleaning category. In California, as well as federally, there is no mandated requirement.
Langert: This lack of disclosure is unbelievable.
Gavigan: It is unbelievable. Same with fragrances. Fragrance is still a locked-up trade term. Fragrance is proprietary and businesses aren’t obligated to tell you what's inside. Trust me, it's often a black box of ingredients and chemicals. Honest Company is completely transparent about all of the ingredients that are in our products because we believe consumers have the right to know. Some like-minded brands also do this, but it is not required. So, yes, we are going to continue to push for smart legislation.
We are going to continue to prod and poke the marketplace, and our growth is a representation of consumers saying, "I'm voting with my dollars. I believe in a company that's more open and more honest and I'm believing in a company that is not going to be identified by their challenges, but it's going to be identified by the ethos and the commitment and their promise in the future."
Langert: How would you quantify your growth over the last few years?
Gavigan: I would quantify our growth as an excited representation of what's happening in the consumer set, as well as the current seismic shift that’s happening in the retailer environment. Now the consumer is saying, "Hey! I want healthy, I want safe, I want better-for-you products and that's what I'm buying." So, you're seeing an extremely high growth in these categories that we exist in, and you're seeing declining, stagnating or stalling growth in some of the categories in the conventional marketplace, and that's for a reason.
I’ve heard people bemoan the millennial and say they're entitled. I say they're forthright in their convictions and they showcase that every single day, as many of them demand that brands have a set of values and principles and standards that they are aligned with.
Langert: You mentioned earlier this idea that customers are looking for the commitment, not necessarily perfection. Explain that a bit more because so many companies think they have to be perfect in everything.
Gavigan: Our job every single day is to be in service of people and to help them live a healthy and happy life. That is on a continuum of trying to be better. I think that perfection is not realistic, it's elusive.
So, I think that is it our job to be candid and genuine. Some brands call themselves "authentic," but I don't like that word. To me, it is more about being consistent with your core values, consistent with your views and consistent with your core emotional expression over time.
Langert: You've been growing really nicely. One of the penalties of growth for a lot of companies is that it's harder to stick to the core principles. Is this true?
Gavigan: The delicate connection between missionary and mercenary is always there, but you have to acknowledge that theme and address it. There will be bumps along the road and you will have to make concessions; nothing is perfect. But we believe — and we truly believe — that we are building a global iconic lifestyle brand that's multi-generational. If you have that vision that you’re truly passionate about, you must to guard it and steward it every single day.
You have to do the small stuff in the trenches that's hard, right? Sometimes you're not going to always get it right, but if you continue to beat that drumbeat of the mission, you're going to make the right decision that's based on the customer and the mission of the company.
Langert: How do you measure success beyond money in a purpose-driven company?
Gavigan: That's a great question, and I don't know if I have an answer that I've fully formulated yet. I think it's always evolving and I think just like the seasons evolve, your satisfaction and how you view success changes.
In the early years of this company, I focused on the product. During that time, I wasn’t able to focus as much on who we were serving, and I wanted to get back to that. I looked at my phone one day and had a revelation: "Wow, my phone's got numbers in it and I can call customers. I can ask them their opinion. They don't have to call in and I don't have to be reactive. I can be proactive."
I took a red-eye out on Saturday night to go to one of our retail stores in New York City, and a mom and her husband and her child, who was just about 2 years old, had driven up from North Carolina just to come up and say, "Thank you." If that doesn't fill you up, you don't have a heartbeat as far as I'm concerned. It made me feel so good and made that trip worth it for sure, because I'm loading my wife up with four kids on a weekend, which is not easy.
And I would say that second side of the coin, again, is people. It always comes back to people, either the consumer or the company culture inside and the people here who work tirelessly. We are fortunate enough to have so many great employees working here, burning the midnight oil to grow the brand. Keeping them happy and keeping them satisfied and delighted and feeling like they're progressing in their career and like they're having the impact — that gets me fired up as well.
It always comes back to relationships. I had to go through graduate school to understand that the most important thing — I mean, you could do anything in the world, but the most important thing that you can learn and better be good at is managing a relationship. My father used to echo that, and I heard and saw that time and time again in graduate school: One of the most important things you can do is to focus on people and relationships.