2019 MOY: Matt Kohler grows a greener Clorox

The CPG company is making strides in sustainability, thanks to the marketer's work behind the scenes.

Matt KohlerThis story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of strategy.

When people hear the name Clorox, they think: namesake bleach, abrasive chemicals, global corporate machine. So some might balk at the idea of the chemical company being seen as a poster child for the green movement.

The California-based manufacturer is made up of a dichotomy of brands that are inherently good and arguably bad for the planet. On one end of its portfolio, it carries natural vegan lip-gloss and clean water filters from Burt’s Bees and Brita. On the other, plastic trash bags and liquid bleach from Glad and Clorox.

Over and above the fact that its bleach is actually environmentally benign (no toxic materials end up in water systems as it’s broken down into salt), The Clorox Company is one of the few global CPG producers that’s driven as much by purpose as it is by profit.

Having set four “Good Growth” targets for 2020, the company challenges itself to think holistically about the lifecycle of its products, from start to finish. Its eco governance spreads from the top of the command chain, downstream and through its supply chain, all the way to the employee and grassroots level.

But Clorox marketers like Matt Kohler still have their work cut out for them.

Speaking at strategy’s Marketing Evolution Summit, the VP of marketing of the multinational’s local arm joked that he’s the probably “the only person in Canada who sells garbage bags and colour cosmetics… We also make probiotics, we make collagen, we make charcoal. And when you add up all of our products, we actually have 88% penetration across Canada. That’s bigger than Nike, bigger than Apple.”

But with many of its products at odds with sentiments around sustainability, he says he’s had to work behind-the-scenes to build the company’s overarching purpose into its products and marketing.

Kohler explains where it all began. Clorox’s entry into greener pastures, so to speak, was through its crowning jewel Burt’s Bees. Before the cosmetics brand’s acquisition in 2007, the research guys at the CPG were studying consumer megatrends and came up with their own acronym to replace CSR. They called it ESG – environmental, social and good governance. Burt’s Bees fit the bill perfectly for a company looking to find Purpose with a capital “P.” Unsurprisingly, media and consumer backlash ensued following the $913 million takeover of the “Earth friendly, natural personal care company.”
Kohler recalls the reactions: “Oh my God, you’ve got this beautiful, wonderful, natural, sustainable business being purchased by one of the largest chemical companies in the world. They are going to destroy it.”

“But we didn’t change Burt’s Bees,” proclaims Kohler. “Burt’s Bees changed us.”

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Six years after the marriage of the strange bedfellows, The Guardian reported how both companies had made strides in sustainability. Thanks to Clorox’s deep pockets, Burt’s Bees was able to increase its R&D budget by 50% and even used the moisture-rich recipe for Hidden Valley Ranch (yes, Clorox also owns a salad dressing) to unlock secrets to a more natural skin lotion.

Simultaneously, Clorox looked to Burt’s to show it a greener way forward. The cosmetics brand’s sustainability officer shared an eco “scorecard” that Clorox now uses to encourage suppliers to reduce the environmental impacts on their operations. Many other practices were cross-pollinated and they leaned on each other to survive and thrive. Today, says Kohler, The Clorox Company in Canada ended its fifth year of consecutive growth and Burt’s Bees has tripled the size of its business in the last four years. The latter now produces 120 natural cosmetic SKUs.

“We’ve actually improved all of tthe statistics. We got zero waste to the landfill, we have a huge supply chain advantage for [Burt’s] to make sure that we can source natural ingredients responsibly,” says Kohler. “We were also able to increase [The Clorox Company’s] recyclability, decrease our carbon footprint, and decrease our greenhouse gases. The marriage of these companies has been profound.”

Then came the trickle effect, with Burt’s “Greater Good” business model having a Midas touch on many of the CPG co.’s consumer brands, including the biggest plastic elephant in the room – Glad.

It’s no easy task giving a brand like Glad purpose when “your best experience with a garbage bag is no experience at all. Many just want to put it on the curb and forget about it,” says Kohler.

Consumers don’t want to deal with the “ick” factor of handling trash and they’re mostly uneducated when it comes to the different municipality garbage programs. So Glad stepped in to “put an end to irresponsible waste,” says Kohler, and began investing in ways to fix broken and confusing recycling and compost collection programs. “People don’t know how to solve the problem. So we play a role in that.”

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Kohler says he and his team work with 200 municipalities, and also retailers, to educate them on proper sorting, providing the correct Glad bags to prevent contamination and helping them to structure their programs.

“We work with these parties to help them understand how they can reprogram consumer behaviour so that they can maximize their recapture rate,” he says.

“It sounds strange because we’re one of the largest garbage bag companies in Canada – but I want to stop selling you garbage bags. I want to get as much out of landfill as possible,” says Kohler. “Is that good for us? Yes, because I want you to buy compost and recycling bags. But it’s also good for the communities in which we are.”

The challenge of driving affinity for Glad – which has experienced 33 consecutive months of share growth as a result of Kohler’s efforts – is a little less complicated than a brand with goodness baked in its DNA. Positioned as a borderline health and wellness brand, Brita sells filtration products that rid impurities for better tasting water.

“Historically, we talked about the lead, mercury, cadmium. We talked about removing those contaminants from water. But it was a product that lacked any sort of emotional connection or purpose,” he says.
Three years ago, in an effort to reignite Brita and reverse stagnating sales, Kohler decided to pivot from speaking about people’s health to that of the planet. Plastic bottles are the new water contaminants. So he and his team launched a series of campaigns in 2019 with that global crisis as a focal point.

Alongside DentsuBos, Kohler has been trying to get consumers to think about the “small choices that can make a big difference.”

Each Brita system can replace up to 1,800 plastic bottles per year, a fact that was highlighted in “The Beauty Beneath” campaign, which showed underwater views of plastic on the floors of Canada’s big and little lakes.

A National Geographic explorer, Asher Jay, also pitched in to share that message. In “Niagara Now,” Jay’s art installation is the recreation of a waterfall made up of 900 bottles, the number consumed every five minutes in Toronto (not to mention the number of bottles a Brita Longlast filter can replace).

And finally, to bring a social lens to the issue – as per its ESG principles – the brand created a Hot Docs-aired Walkumentary, following a Kenyan woman’s gruelling 4.5 hour trek to collect and bring drinkable water back to her family and community.

Each time the skippable video was skipped, a viewer could purchase a “Filter for Good” and the brand gave a year’s worth of potable water to someone in Kenya.

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Kohler says 55,000 people have benefited from the program to date. “It’s entirely transformed communities in Kenya, and through a partnership we work with 6,000 schools to talk about that impact.”
With 2020 around the corner – and three of its four eco targets attained – The Clorox Company is now looking to the next five years. It’s so far reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 33%, water consumption by 21% and solid waste-to-landfill by 21%. At press, Clorox was just short of reducing energy consumption by 20%.

Kohler shares that Clorox will soon launch a more concentrated bleach so it can pack more solution in less packaging (which means more products in trucks, and fewer on the road). And in May, it joined the TerraCycle/Loop circular program to move closer to its reusable packaging goals.

“We have had a lot of discussions [with consumers] about the balance of our chemicals, making sure that we have the right list of ingredients, making sure that we’re leaders and that we show transparency,” he says. “Historically, we haven’t talked about what’s in our products, because it’s considered proprietary. But consumers have higher expectations now. So we became one of the first companies to disclose exactly what’s in our products [on our website].”

Kohler says those efforts have been “a nice way to dip our feet in the water” but that this is just the beginning. “The reality is, in order to get the kind of step-change that we need as a planet, we need to make less incremental and more disruptive changes in our supply chain.”

“[Sustainability] starts at the top,” he adds. “And marketing is one of the biggest stakeholders. Because marketing should be overseeing innovation, they should be working on new product launches, they should be working on the way a brand talks about its products.”

With that said, “sustainability is not a marketing idea. If you think it is, you’re greenwashing,” says Kohler. “It should be at the core of what you’re doing as a company.”