Packaged goods co-opt the 'natural' revolution
Can startups still compete in an industry they created?
The increasing demand for natural goods has prompted major CPG companies to ride the wave in the consumer push for more natural products.
When Burt's Bees toothpaste hit the market late last year, its low-key, folksy graphics looked like many other natural toothpastes from mom-and-pop marketers. But it's made by Procter & Gamble Co. under license from Clorox Co., which owns Burt's Bees.
That tells you almost everything you need to know about natural personal and home-care products today: A segment started decades ago by bootstrap operators with crunchy-granola roots is now dominated by the traditional packaged-goods giants and retailers, which have mainly bought their way in more or less under the radar.
Unilever, SC Johnson and P&G have been particularly aggressive buyers in recent years, all to heighten their appeal to millennial and Gen Z shoppers, who tend to care about avoiding synthetic ingredients and chemicals deemed hazardous. But while big CPG players largely dominate natural aisles of stores, their ownership of the products or the role they play in the natural-goods industry is often invisible to consumers.
"The big CPG companies for years watched smaller brands develop with a lot of envy but without taking action, thinking natural was a fad that would disappear eventually," says Bernstein Research analyst Ali Dibadj. "It stopped being a fad when it got big enough to bother them."
In addition to launching Burt's Bees toothpaste, P&G in the past 18 months has bought Native natural deodorants and the This Is L. brand of certified organic cotton tampons. The company slowly has been building Zevo, a direct-to-consumer brand of plug-in bug traps and bug sprays made from essential oils as an alternative to insecticides with synthetic chemicals. Even when P&G hasn't bought or launched a natural-positioned brand, it's been fending off competition with lines like Pampers Pure, which quickly seized the top slot in the natural segment of diapers and wipes after debuting last year.
Rival Unilever in the past three years has bought natural-products titan Seventh Generation and Schmidt's natural deodorant and toothpaste. A little more than a year ago it launched the new natural brand Love Beauty and Planet. Meanwhile, Mrs. Meyer's, Method and Babyganics all have been acquired by SC Johnson. Tom's of Maine, that other scrappy little personal-care player, has been owned by Colgate-Palmolive Co. for 13 years.
Including all the acquisitions or natural-positioned line extensions like P&G's Pampers Pure (made without chlorine bleaching, fragrances, parabens or latex) and the similarly scrubbed Tide Purclean, big players now occupy enough shelf and head space that it's going to be hard for startups to compete, says Dibadj, who sees signs that venture investors are getting more cautious about the sector.
Even so, investment banks staked out a major presence at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, in March. At the show, which is a major showcase for small brands, the bankers displayed ads touting deals they'd done helping big CPG players buy natural startups, says new products consultant Tom Vierhile.
"I'm not sure consumers really know who owns what in natural products anymore," Vierhile says. "It's hard enough for us in the industry to keep track."
Invisible companies behind the curtain
In a way, that's by design. Consumers don't know who owns what because CPG players don't go out of their way to tell them. P&G put samples of Burt's Bees toothpaste in bags at its investor day in Cincinnati last November, but the fine print on the back of the package identifies it as coming from Sunflower Distributing, a little-known subsidiary. Unilever, which has slapped its corporate logo on the back of packages for most of its brands in recent years, hasn't done so with Seventh Generation. Nor does SC Johnson put its corporate moniker or "A Family Company at Work for a Better World" tagline on the back of Method or Mrs. Meyer's products.
SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson says the industry is giving consumers what they want, even if there's ultimately not much real difference between the old traditional brands and newer "natural" ones. SCJ has embraced sustainability and full disclosure of ingredients for years, Johnson says. The company took chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) out of aerosols in the 1970s, a decade before the Montreal Protocol began a global phaseout, he says, and began "brown-listing" questionable ingredients around the same time.
Even many fruits—such as bananas and peaches—have trace amounts of carcinogens, he says. And natural ingredients like oregano oil are still powerful chemical compounds with adverse health effects in large doses. So, are SCJ's "natural" brands, Mrs. Meyer's, Method and Babyganics, really any more environmentally friendly than other SCJ brands (like Scrubbing Bubbles, once mocked in a Method ad)? "No. That's the short answer," Johnson says. "It's important for us to be factual about what we say about those products and our base business. But if people have a perception one way or the other and want to choose one over another, we want to provide the choice."
Honest soldiers on
Despite the natural land-grab by big players, it's not entirely game over for startups. The Honest Co., co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, remains independent—though not for lack of trying to be acquired. It was on the market three years ago when Unilever opted instead to buy similarly positioned multicategory giant Seventh Generation.
Honest Co. was hurt in 2016 by publicity over its laundry detergents and other products containing the controversial ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate, despite claims to the contrary. Seventh Generation had circulated research showing an unnamed competitor's products contained the ingredient, says Dibadj, and subsequent chemical analysis by The Wall Street Journal confirmed it was Honest Co.'s products.
Ultimately Honest Co. settled a class-action false advertising lawsuit in 2017 over the issue for $1.5 million and agreed to reformulate products. Now the company is in turnaround mode, led by CEO Nick Vlahos, formerly of Clorox.
"We're proud to be the No. 1 natural diaper brand and the No. 1 natural personal-care brand in terms of sales over the past year. We're expanding our U.S. and international footprint through a series of strategic new retail partnerships," Vlahos says. "We believe we changed the CPG industry."
That change includes inducing almost every major rival to pile on with competitive products or acquisitions, including big retailers. Walmart in March created a remarkably precise facsimile of Honest Co., including the Hollywood talent, with the launch of the Hello Bello natural, plant-based diapers and other baby products fronted by Kristen Bell and husband Dax Shepard. Hello Bello begins life as a Walmart semi-exclusive, sold in stores and online by the world's largest retailer but also direct-to-consumer online by Hello Bello.
The fact that the same old big players have created a parallel universe of natural products could breed cynicism. But the big companies are also taking pains to run sustainability initiatives beyond their green brands. P&G, for example, is developing new plastic recycling technology, and new environmentally friendly shampoos and home-care products with no water content. Burt's Bees owner Clorox also campaigns to replace plastic water bottles by selling reusable Brita filters.
Joey Bergstein, CEO of Seventh Generation, notes that Unilever now has within it six subsidiaries that qualify as B Corporations, including his Vermont neighbor and corporate sibling Ben & Jerry's. These are for-profit corporations that also are deemed to have a positive impact on society, workers, communities and the environment among their legally defined goals.
For Unilever as a whole to become a B Corp would take changes to its legally defined objectives beyond maximizing shareholder value, changes that shareholders would likely resist. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman's frequent public embrace of environmental and sustainability goals annoyed many bottom-line-focused investors, some of whom derisively and privately called him "Captain Planet."
But Seventh Generation joining Unilever has spurred growth for both, Bergstein says. He also believes Unilever's high-profile advocacy of sustainability has kept consumer cynicism at bay. "When Unilever approached us almost three years ago, we weren't for sale," Bergstein says. "We were doing well. We were backed by patient investors." But the two sides "realized our values were really aligned," he says. Now Bergstein tells Seventh Generation people about "our ability to infect the host and help move the industry to a better place."
The contagion is definitely spreading. In addition to Unilever's Love Beauty and Planet hair and skin-care products, it has moved into home care with Love Home and Planet earlier this year, which features recycled plastics, a self-imposed carbon tax and "planet-friendly" ingredients. So how does that differ from Seventh Generation? "Seventh Generation is best suited to consumers who are seeking safe solutions, to avoid chemicals, to avoid the nasties, or who are prone to allergies," says Sonika Malhotra, brand founder and global brand director of Love Beauty and Planet/Love Home and Planet. Her new brand "tackles a consumer who is much less willing to make compromises" on things like fragrance or texture and uses conventional brands now, but wants natural ingredients and a greener environmental impact.
Even as Unilever and other big players try to occupy every niche, Bergstein says the crush of new players at the recent Natural Products Expo West show tells him there's plenty of room for startups. Craig Dubitsky, CEO and founder of independent Hello Products, who helped some private investors navigate the show, agrees. Hello more than tripled sales and more than doubled distribution to 41,000 from 19,000 stores last year, moving recently into Dollar General, Ulta Beauty and Whole Foods while building a direct-to-consumer subscription business.
Clearly that caught P&G's attention, encouraging the Burt's Bees launch. But if P&G and other big companies aren't bragging about owning these brands, Dubitsky believes that's because consumers don't care about their heritage.
"People now will trust reviews from complete strangers on Amazon or number of likes on an Instagram feed," he says, "more than they'll trust that it came from a big company."