Burt's Bees Are Busy on the Sustainability Front

Crossposted with www.thegreengrok.com.

A report from the headquarters of Burt's Bees.

If you think about it, Burt's Bees -- maker of lip balms, skin creams, and such in yellow packages stamped with the Natural Products Association seal -- is a remarkable company. While targeting consumers around the globe drawn to a niche market for "natural" personal care products, it still commands its own free-standing, highly visible, yellow kiosks in supermarkets and drug stores throughout America.

That's pretty heady territory for a company whose tag line is "Earth friendly natural personal care for the greater good." According to its Web site, "over half of our 150+ products are 100 percent natural" and all meet the company's "natural standard" of containing at least 95 percent natural ingredients.

Part of Burt's Bees' commitment to the "greater good" is environmental -- their "ultimate goal," according to their site, "is to be the 'greenest personal care company on earth.'" Easy to say, but are they serious about it, or is this just another example of greenwashing?

I decided to see for myself and so last week I stopped by the Burt's Bees headquarters in downtown Durham to spend a couple of hours with the company's president and chief executive officer, John Replogle, and its sustainability director, Yola Carlough.

A Visit to the Main Hive

The headquarters are located next door to the Durham Bulls stadium on the American Tobacco Campus, a complex of renovated tobacco warehouses that are now home to sundry businesses and shops. (Product manufacture takes place nearby at the Research Triangle Park.)

I arrived at the offices at 11 am on a Friday. And after checking in with the receptionist, I wandered around the lobby, noting its high ceiling, original brick walls and wood floors, and product displays along the sides.

Soon enough, a youngish-looking, fair-haired man in jeans and a polo shirt walked up with a smile and a handshake. I was surprised to learn this was John -- he looked much too young to be the head of a major corporation. But then, I thought, maybe there really is something to those Burt's Bees products.

Humble Beginnings: From Honey in Maine to Products in Stores Around the Globe

The way John tells it, the genesis of Burt's Bees is the quintessential rags-to-riches story, but it's slightly different from what appears on their Web site. Back in the 1980s, Roxanne Quimby's car broke down on a rural road in Maine and Burt Shavitz stopped to help her out. The conversation turned to the huge honey jars rattling around the back of Burt's truck -- Burt kept bees and sold honey. Roxanne thought she could make his business more profitable, and a partnership was a born.

One of the first things Roxanne did was make a label for Burt's honey jars. It featured a picture of Burt with some bees buzzing around, an image that led to the Burt's Bees name.

From honey and beeswax candles, their enterprise expanded to lip balm and skin lotions; eventually the company outgrew its little Maine town, and relocated to North Carolina in 1994. Shortly thereafter, Burt left the company to return to Maine, and Roxanne sold her stake to a private equity firm in 2003. John joined the company in 2006, and in 2007, Burt's Bees was bought out by Clorox.

That's right, Clorox owns Burt's Bees. A company whose foundation is the making and selling of natural products is owned by the chief purveyor of bleach -- strange bedfellows.

John agrees it's an unlikely marriage, but says the purchase reflects a long-term, strategic decision to change the parent company's product mix in the green direction. In fact, he opined that the Burt's Bees presence in Clorox's corporate structure has helped Clorox develop its own sustainability goals rather than hindering those of Burt's Bees.

Well, I don't know much about Clorox, so I'm not in a position to comment on its green culture. But from what I saw and learned during my visit, I'm convinced that Burt's Bees walks the walk when it comes to corporate sustainability.

The Bees' Green Goals

The company has developed ambitious sustainability goals. These include:

  • being 100 percent carbon-free,
  • having all their facilities in LEED-certified buildings, and
  • having zero waste.

How serious are these goals? John says quite. For example, bonuses and performance reviews are tied to meeting them.

How well are they doing? The data I saw indicate they're making progress.

Most impressive is how they've shrunk their waste stream. In 2006, the company sent 344 tons of waste to land fills. This year, that number will essentially be zero. Everything they use is either reused or recycled, and nothing gets thrown out.

How'd they do it? It started with a corporate "dumpster dive" -- two weeks' worth of trash the company had sent to a landfill was delivered back to them, and the staff, armored in yellow rubber suits, sifted through and studied it. (See video of the dumpster dive.) They then installed recycling bins throughout their facilities, removed garbage cans from offices, and tied the waste stream to staff performance.

On other fronts progress has been slower. Between 2007 and 2009 electricity usage declined by about 10 percent but is back up this year because of expansion. Water use is down significantly since 2007 but above its 2010 goal. Overall, they give themselves an environmental sustainability rating of 89.2 percent -- an indication, said John, that they're going to have to do better.

It's true they have a long, long way to go to become carbon-free, but zero waste to landfills isn't shabby. I left impressed. But in the interest of full disclosure I must report that on my way out John gave me a sample of their newest product -- a tube of Burt's Bees toothpaste. Could that gift have clouded my judgment? Has the glare from my new smile blinded me to the truth? You'll have to be the judge.