By Maureen Knoll
Director, Creative & Communications
Delta Dental of California
At the San Francisco Public Relations Round Table’s October 22 meeting, Kathryn Caulfield, Vice President for Global Corporate Communications, Corporate Responsibility and Crisis Management, shared her behind-the-scenes story on how Clorox managed its transition from a company on Greenpeace’s attack list to a leader in sustainability.
Caulfield described how in four years, Clorox transformed itself from a corporation known as a commercial bleach manufacturer to a $5.6 billion operation with products as diverse as Fresh Step Kitty Litter and Burt’s Bees lip gloss. That transformation was not without some bumps in the road. The 100-year old company had an enviable track record in cleaning products, but knew that its product line wasn’t diverse enough to satisfy the emerging consumer megatrends of wellness and sustainability. In 2008, Clorox acquired Burt’s Bees. The Burt’s Bees acquisition “sent shockwaves” through the staff of the small natural personal care products company. Their employees considered Clorox the “devil who had come to town and bought their company,” and it took some convincing for the staff to develop trust in Clorox.
Ten months later, Clorox introduced its own naturally derived cleaning brand, Greenworks. After first being accused of “greenwashing” by some of the more vocal bloggers, Caulfield urged the company to enter into a dialog with their critics and was able to win some of them over. Clorox’s alliance with the Sierra Club was one important step in the quest for endorsement from the sustainability community. In 2010, they joined the International Integrated Reporting Council, using the council’s reporting framework to demonstrate how interdependent environmental and financial factors are in contributing to value. Stockholders have been taking note.
Bringing Advocates to its Side
In 2001, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack in the US, a new movement began forcing companies into safer manufacturing practices. Clorox had already begun planning a move away from manufacturing its bleach-based products using chlorine gas, to a fully sustainable electrolytic process that converts the brine in sea water into bleach—the process used to make Clorox bleach since the company was founded in 1913.
While Clorox was privately putting in motion its process to eliminate chlorine gas from its supply chain, Greenpeace contacted Clorox demanding a letter from their CEO on what the company was doing to prevent chlorine from sullying the oceans. At Caulfield’s urging, the company chose to engage with Greenpeace rather than ignore them. Their first step was to obtain a Non-Disclosure Agreement from them/ They then met with the activists to announce Clorox’s intent to eliminate chlorine from its manufacturing process, a project that couldn’t be made public for another 10 months.
Greenpeace, which came in ready to do battle with Clorox, instead was disarmed by the proprietary news on the company’s intentions. Ultimately, Greenpeace became a fan, offering to feature Clorox on their website and providing volunteers to help get the word out about the company’s pre-emptive move to sustainability.
Today, Clorox publishes an annual report that showcases not just their financial news, but their hard-won reputation for corporate responsibility. Primarily an online report that can be customized by the viewer, Clorox also publishes a print version. The report is an important part of the company’s corporate responsibility strategy based on its five “pillars” of People, Products, Planet, Performance and Purpose