S.C. Johnson CEO: Convenience Wins Over Sustainable Innovations

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Marc Gunther, contributing editor of Fortune, holds the small, Windex concentrate packet that Johnson says American consumers won’t buy, due to the inconvenience of needing to add the liquid to a bottle of water. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911

LAGUNA NIGUEL, CALIF. – What if you could buy your cleaning projects in game-changing packaging that reduced waste by more than 85 percent? The answer, according to Fisk Johnson, chairman and CEO of S.C. Johnson, is you simply won’t buy it.

Johnson has a vested interest in consumers changing their minds, as his company makes these small packets. The company is at the center of a debate between sustainable initiatives that the company would like to take and what its customers will actually pay for.

“If we’re going to make faster progress we’ve got to be willing to make small trade-offs,” says Johnson.

Holding up a small pouch of Windex concentrate, Johnson explains that consumers simply need to pour the pouch into a spray bottle and add water to get essentially the same cleaning experience as buying a normal bottle of Windex at the store.

This new form of packaging greatly reduces landfill waste, transportation costs in shipping products to stores and the energy required to manufacture what is the equivalent of a 32-ounce bottle of cleaner. But U.S. customers won’t bite.

“Consumers just aren’t willing to buy this,” Johnson tells the audience at the Fortune: GREEN Brainstorm in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “We sell a product like this in the developing world, where the few pennies they save is meaningful to them, and they’re willing to go to the inconvenience of refilling the bottle. But we’re just not able to succeed with this in North America.”

Johnson says that without consumer willingness to make small changes like using concentrates, there will not quickly assist solving “the bigger problem for the next generation.”

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