GOJO taking big steps to reduce its chemical footprint

2/21/2016   Dan Shingler   Crain's Cleveland Business   Blog  

GOJO taking big steps to reduce its chemical footprint

Seventy years after it was founded, Akron-based GOJO Industries is right back where it started – trying to reduce the number of chemicals that people expose themselves to, especially when they’re trying to get their hands clean.

It has, after all, proved good for business in the past.

At the end of 2015, GOJO vowed to cut its chemical footprint in half by 2020 – which will mean replacing chemicals that are now derived from industrial processes with more natural alternatives and reformulating some products into new natural iterations. GOJO also will cut its use of packaging materials, increase its recycling efforts and achieve more third-party certifications for the sustainability and chemical content of its products.

“They’re the first to come out and publicly say they would do it,” said Mark Rossi, executive director of Massachusetts-based Clean Production Action, a nonprofit focused on convincing companies to disclose more of their chemical usage and reduce it when they can eliminate toxic or environmentally hazardous materials.

Rossi, who holds a doctorate in environmental policy, said he’s talking to businesses all over the country and about 25 have responded and are being scored for their responsible chemical policies and practices. But only GOJO has taken the major step of publicly announcing it would make large and specific reductions in its “chemical footprint,” as measured by a group of business and environmental organizations in a coalition called BizNGo, which Rossi also founded.

It will require real effort on GOJO’s part to meet its goal, Rossi said.

“I’ve lauded them because they’re the first company that came out and said they would reduce their chemical footprint … it’s a significant amount of work,” he said. “We’re asking them to understand what’s in all their products, evaluate them and then produce a program where you commit to reducing it.”

Big players

Rossi’s not just a guy with a winning smile and good intentions either. Clean Production Action is a coalition of more than 50 signatories – investment firms, big health care firms such as Kaiser Permanente, and even big retailers, such as Staples – who themselves manage or influence more than $2 trillion in invested assets. They’re asking the companies in which they invest to provide more information about their chemical use and, if possible, to reduce their chemical footprints.

If Rossi has his way, “chemical footprint” might become a common term, the way “carbon footprint” has entered the lexicon. His groups are working with Sweden’s ChemSec — a nongovernmental agency focused on chemical-harm reduction — to define the term and promote its use.

“It’s a new term, and we’re at the forefront of defining what a chemical footprint is,” said Rossi.

In a nutshell, it means scoring chemicals based on how hazardous they are to people or the environment. The higher the score, the worse, generally, the chemical is – so a company with a lower score is using less of and fewer dangerous chemicals than a company with a higher score.

“Chemicals, per se, are not bad — everything around us is made of chemicals,” Rossi said. “We’re focusing for the chemical footprint on things like carcinogens and neurotoxins or lead.”

For GOJO, the philosophy of reducing its chemical footprint might make sense on several levels. Not only is it good public relations and a win with investors like those working with Rossi, but it’s also a marketing opportunity. Consumers actually do want products with fewer harsh chemicals and artificial ingredients that might score higher than natural alternatives in terms of a chemical footprint analysis, said Nicole Koharik, GOJO’s global sustainability marketing director.

Already, she said, the company is unveiling “natural” product lines by doing things like using natural sources for the alcohol in its popular Purell hand sanitizers.

Company's roots

Which brings us back to GOJO’s beginnings, and the connection between the company’s founding 70 years ago and its current chemical footprint initiative.

“Our founders, Goldie and Jerry Lippman, really built this company with some similar principles of sustainability … In fact, the company was founded on a safer way to clean hands,” Koharik said.

Back in the 1940s, the Lippman's saw mechanics, machinists and a host of other industrial workers using several caustic agents – like kerosene and gasoline – to remove dirt, grease and sometimes other dangerous chemicals from their hands. Many workers, especially women, wanted a better solution that would at least be gentler to their skin – before most folks even knew that exposure to dangerous chemicals could cause cancer or other illnesses.

When GOJO introduced its safe-but-still-effective alternative hand cleaner, it was so successful that one of the company’s next products was a dispenser – because buyers complained that workers liked the cleaner so much, they not only used too much, they snuck some away to take home, said GOJO spokeswoman Kelly McGlumphy.

And GOJO is not exactly new to the green-sustainability game either. In recent years, the company has been focused on getting more products formulated so they can get third-party certifications and has found that doing so boosts sales, McGlumphy said. About a quarter of the company’s products now have some sort of “green” certification, Koharik said.

And, along the way, GOJO is finding new ways to make products for people with skin conditions or sensitive skin – also selling points.

“We want to leverage sustainability to drive innovation,” Koharik said.

And GOJO likely is pleasing at least one customer with its newest chemical footprint initiative with Rossi’s groups.

“We were asked in 2014 by a good customer, Staples, to participate in the chemical footprint pilot program,” Koharik said.

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Originally published in Crain's Cleveland Business