Calling your company ‘The Honest Company’, as Hollywood’s Jessica Alba has done, is asking for trouble. For a start it means you are claiming a very high moral position, so you have a long way to fall if you slip off. It also gets the backs up of people you compete with. If you are going big that you are honest it rather implies that the rest of us are a bunch of scoundrels. It isn’t a way to win friends.
And I’ll be frank and say that it hasn’t made me particularly well disposed towards the Honest Company. I recently reported that they have got into trouble with inadequately preserved baby wipes. This doesn’t actually contradict the honesty label. If you don’t know what you are doing you might well be perfectly honest. I am quite sure there was no intention to release harmful products. But on the whole I am still not inclined to buy the products if an honest mistake has been made. The producer might be sincere, but the products are still going mouldy.
The latest scrape the Honest company has got into is suit from consumers who complain that their products contain harmful ingredients. This is a bit of a different problem to selling products infested with fungi. It goes right to the heart of the Honest Company’s ethos and suggests that far from being honest they are in fact attempting to hoodwink consumers into buying stuff that they know is actually harmful.
Well as I said, I am not particularly inclined to leap to the Honest Company’s defence. But in fact, I don’t think this suit has much merit. The Honest Company’s products are pretty standard ones and they use much the same ingredients as other companies operating in the sector. Cosmetic ingredients are safe and the industry has an extremely good track record of ensuring its consumers are not harmed. This isn’t because the people in the cosmetic industry are exceptionally conscientious and responsible. I know a lot of people in the business and they are pretty much the same as anyone else. It just turns out that it is fairly easy to make cosmetic and personal care products that are both safe to use and which work very well. In fact given that the rules of economics have the effect of making the most widely used products the cheapest, you have to work quite hard to make your products less safe.
There are two ways that products end up being suboptimal. You can employ clueless formulators – which is what the Honest Company did when it used an inadequate preservative. Or you can apply a set of rules about what is and isn’t acceptable that aren’t based on science. This is what a lot of natural brands do. Most know enough to avoid getting into any actual trouble. But small natural brands don’t have the resources to do the testing and research that big brands do, so it is a bigger risk for them. I don’t think that this is a big enough issue to recommend avoiding natural products. I am quite happy to use them myself, and there isn’t much risk of coming to any harm from them. But the fact remains, if safety is your prime concern then big brands on the whole pose less of a risk.
As it happens the Honest Company is a pretty big brand. It is about to be offered to investors with a valuation in the region of a billion dollars. They clearly have the pockets to produce safe products and judging by their INCI lists that is just what they have done on the whole, if we overlook the mouldy baby wipes as a one off. If I were the judge presiding of this one, I would dismiss the case against them. They haven’t used harmful chemicals. I don’t see how they can be said to have broken the law. Some might argue that making misleading statements about the safety of cosmetic ingredients shouldn’t be allowed, but that is the kind of rule that any creative lawyer can get around.
I wouldn’t buy their products though. Being insufferably superior in your marketing while having a bland unimaginative range of products may not be illegal. But it still annoys me.