Johnson & Johnson Walks the PR Tightrope on Toxic Chemicals

If you’ve ever read the label on the package of any sort of processed food, you’ve undoubtedly encountered a whole host of unpronounceable, unrecognizable chemicals–so it’s really no surprise that discussions about organic practices, GMOs, and the current state of our food production/distribution system have been building steam over the past several years.

But in these increasingly health-and-environment-conscious times, consumers are growing more concerned not just with what they put in their bodies, but also what they put on their bodies. Chances are, the label on your shampoo bottle is just as unsettling as the label on your cereal box. With this in mind, several specialty lines of self-care products like Origins, Murad and others have taken full advantage of the trend toward natural ingredients, building their brands by boasting about the ingredients not included in their products.

Now, Johnson & Johnson, which makes a wide range of personal care products including everything from its famous baby shampoo to familiar drugstore brands like Neutrogena, Aveeno, and Clean & Clear, has announced that it will be phasing out harmful chemicals from its products by 2015, and from several of its baby products by 2013.

The chemicals in question include 1,4 dioxane, phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and formaldehyde (which can be released over time by popular preservatives like quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin).

“There’s a very lively public discussion going on about the safety of ingredients in personal care products,” Susan Nettesheim, vice president for product stewardship and toxicology for J&J’s consumer health brands, told The New York Times. “It was really important that we had a voice in that.”

Environmental and consumer groups are taking notice. Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an organization that has been negotiating with J&J in order to change their practices, told the Times, “We’ve never really seen a major personal care product company take the kind of move that they’re taking with this…Not really even anything in the ballpark.” It’s true — while J&J’s latest move may simply seem like the right thing to do, it’s fairly groundbreaking stuff for such a large company, and we wonder whether other personal care giants like Estée Lauder and Proctor & Gamble will feel pressured to follow suit in the years ahead.

Of course, we don’t know how the public will greet these newly formulated products. But J&J’s promise may do more than help them regain consumer trust after the slew of recalls that caused Chief Executive William Weldon will step down this past April; it could potentially win back customers who switched over to more natural brands, especially since those brands tend to be pricier and harder to come by than the big-name products lining the shelves of your local grocery and drugstores.

J&J’s PR challenge, however, lies in touting its commitment to change and safety while reassuring customers that its current products are safe; 2015 is still a long way off. The company has launched a new website to help convey its contradictory message, referring to its current plans as “moving beyond safety.”

J&J’s message? Rest assured, brand-loyal parents: You’re not dousing your infants with toxic chemicals each time you put them in the tub, because our current products are safe (we swear!!)–but they’ll be SUPER safe come 2013! We see this as a major messaging challenge for J&J, but we also believe that they’re doing a good thing in the long run, and we wish them luck in straddling a treacherous PR line.