video - Can Companies Learn to be Green?

We hear a lot about greenwashing by companies. It’s an unfortunate though not unexpected side affect of the growing awareness about environmental issues in the American population. After all, if we get hooked on an idea, someone is always ready to sell us more of it, right?

But greenwashing doesn’t always end badly. One of the best results of greenwashing is the huge growth in the number of companies that are working hard to be as transparent and as honest as possible about their sustainability efforts. From rockstar companies such as Seventh Generation and Burgerville to trailblazers such as Patagonia, to surprising contenders such as Puma (watch the video above), and even slow but steady improvers such as McDonald’s and Nike and of course the thousands upon thousands of small businesses trying to do the right thing from the ground up, companies see the long-term economic benefits of being open and honest about their environmental paths thanks to the missteps others have made.

But another positive outcome of greenwashing is when the company at fault sees the error of its ways and actually makes improvements. Then we all win. Case in point: SC Johnson.

Back in 2001, SC Johnson–makers of Windex, Ziploc, Raid and other similar product lines–decided to evaluate all the ingredients of all its brands and rate them from an environmental perspective. Starting in 2008, the company used the results of that in-house study and put a “GreenList” label on products with fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in them. Sounds good, right? But the GreenList label was certified by no one besides SC Johnson. In other words consumers had to just take SC Johnson’s word for it that the product and its ingredients were better than before even as the label implied that it was certified by a third party. (The back of the label said, “Greenlist is a rating system that promotes the use of environmentally responsible ingredients.”)

Fast forward to the present when SC Johnson settled two class action lawsuits and admitted that it’s actions didn’t look so good.

“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.

The upshot of all this though, is that the actual process of investigating and rating its ingredients SC Johnson,”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.”

Not bad at all. Of course, this doesn’t let the company off the hook for its previous missteps, but combined with the admission of wrong-doing and the actual improvements in the formulations of its products, SC Johnson does seem to have learned and is now trying to the right thing. Like Puma.