An Apology

You have to love Consumer Reports. Their vigilance when it comes to looking out for consumers is as boundless as their enthusiasm for the job, and, as I learned late last week, no detail gets overlooked along the way.

I wish I could say the same for things here. But details occasionally do get overlooked on our end. Stuff happens. I’m philosophical about it. As a company that’s gone from struggling to explosive growth in the space of just a few years (a corporate Cinderella story if there ever was one), I know all too well how many days we spend just trying to hang on as this roller coaster picks up steam. We do the best we can, so I can’t complain. But Consumer Reports can. And last week they did and rightfully so.

At issue was the label for our Automatic Dishwasher Gel. One of the words that appears on the front is “biodegradable,” an implicit message that our formula breaks down in the environment. And all of it will except for one polymer-based cleaning agent that it uses. (There’s another cleaning agent in the formula that does biodegrade, and both are needed for the product to work.) In accordance with our belief in full ingredients disclosure, this important information appears on the back of every bottle. Still, without an asterisk or some kind of immediate notation on the front, “biodegradable” really shouldn’t be there. But it is. And Consumer Reports quite correctly wondered why. Here’s the story:

In the early days of our history, we relied on our manufacturing partners to create formulas which we then purchased the rights to. In the case of our dishwasher gel, our partner said the formula was biodegradable. So we said so, too.

In 2004, while replacing all the formulas created by our manufacturing partners with our own, we found out this wasn’t true. Our chemist told our marketing people (who design our labels), and they told our operations people (who have the labels printed), and new labels should have appeared at the factory, but they didn’t.

We were growing rapidly at the time, and as other issues emerged, the revised label on the dishwasher gel kept getting shoved aside by more immediate concerns until it got lost. Indeed, the staff who are now in charge of our labeling weren’t even here in 2004, and in fact had no idea there was an issue.

The truth is, we simply forgot about it. Believe me when I tell you that I know just how lame that sounds. “We forgot” is a pretty lousy explanation under the best of circumstances, which these aren’t because we don’t even have an annual label review process to catch these kinds of oversights. We’ve been shaking our heads about it all week but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the truth, and as a transparent company that’s what we tell. So no excuses. No BS cover story in corporate doublespeak. We forgot. As my kids say… our bad.

I’ve said before that this kind of thing goes with our territory. Things happen when you’re blazing a new trail, and not all of them are good. For example, a total lack of regulation of the term “biodegradable” means standards are voluntary and the word doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. That’s why there was confusion in the first place and why we adopted the more rigorous definition of “biodegradable” used in Europe, which is what led us to blow the whistle on ourselves in 2004 when we reviewed all our then current ingredients as part of our reformulation initiative.

The road less taken is often a rough one, and we got tripped up as we made our way, this time mostly by ourselves. It wasn’t the first such occasion, and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the last. The good news is that now we’re a bigger, more solid company so our rediscovery of this issue is something we can deal with swiftly and surely.

Now we’re doing what we meant to do two years ago. We’re taking the word “biodegradable” off the front labels on our existing formula. It’ll be a few weeks before these new labels are printed and a bit more before they reach retailers, but the process has started. We’re also launching a new partnership with MBDC, the cradle-to-cradle environmental design firm founded by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. Together, with the guidance of our outside legal counsel, we’re conducting a complete review of all our products to make absolutely sure we’re doing everything in the healthiest and most sustainable way possible.

And that’s the part of this story where I think the rubber meets the road. We screwed up. But there isn’t a single person here who isn’t completely committed to doing whatever it takes to get it right. In the meantime, to all our friends and customers and on behalf of everyone here, I’d just like to say we’re sorry. You have our sincere apologies.

In the end, ours was an honest mistake, and since the ultimate safety of our product from both human health and environmental standpoints was never in question and our back label made full disclosure, no material harm was done. Nonetheless Consumer Reports is right: We were wrong. For pointing that out, keeping us honest, and holding us to the same standards to which we hold ourselves, they’ve got our thanks. Theirs was a wonderful reminder that we can’t and shouldn’t rest on our laurels. That we have to stay sharp even as we keep moving forward. That you have to do both or you’re really not doing anything at all. Staying true means staying vigilant. And that’s the kind of company we intend to be.