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

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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  1. I’m curious to know exactly how many “pennies” this would save. I’m convinced that if you offered this product for a lower price along side the full, watery bottle, many consumers would choose the cheaper concentrate.

    Perhaps the stores can participate by marking up the concentrate less than they do the bottles. More product on less shelf space should be a benefit worthy of a little discount.

  2. I think Johnson is underestimating the U.S. consumer. Green awareness is continuing to grow. Maybe people won’t do it for the few pennies, but there are many now who will accept a little inconvenience for the environmental benefits. Concentrated versions aren’t new after all (think frozen OJ).

    Maybe it’s more about the target market of a product like Windex than the marketability of reduced packaging. Perhaps the consumers who buy Windex are not the same ones who’d make buying decisions based on eco friendly factors. Those consumers do exist, though. And their numbers are growing. It may take a bit of marketing (to show the benefits of this concentrated version) on S.C. Johnson’s part, though, to appeal to that segment. And perhaps that’s what they’re unwilling to invest in.

  3. Less packaging is definitely better, but how about chemical free as well? A greener alternative, something biodegradable, safe to wash down the drain, AND safe to use in the household with children and pets? That would really make me buy it, especially if the price is comparable or better!

  4. i don’t fully buy this. i think it has to do with the way stores market it and the fact that in truth consumers have too much choice. there has to be a presentation on the isle. a way for consumers to become familiar with the new approach and WHY. a picture showing how much gas, plastic and other resources are saved simply by this little difference.

    still i suggest everyone reading this to google ‘Derrick Jensen 25 premises’. this kind of consumer driven change WILL NEVER WORK. but that will seem offensive to you if you don’t understand the real problem. this web site is mostly dedicated to Market based “green” thinking. we’ll all be extinct within your children’s lifetime by most estimates and this form of do nothing change will have been at the core of it.
    Read books like Derrick Jensen Endgame and others. real sustainability.

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