The TH Interview: Mike Indursky of Burt's Bees on the Greater Good Campaign

A bee and honey mural on the offices of Burt's Bees.

Thomas Barta / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A little while back TreeHugger posted news of the Greater Good campaign, a new initiative being spearheaded by natural body care pioneers Burt's Bees. The idea behind the campaign is to clear up once and for all the fuzzy definitions of 'natural' when it comes to personal care products. The initiative is setting out to win support across the industry for a tighter definition of what can, and can not, be described as a natural product, and to raise awareness among consumers, both through education, and through the promotion of a recognized and regulated standard and corresponding seal that could go on all approved products. Given the importance of such an initiative, both to the industry, and to consumers, we thought we should get in touch with Burt's Bees to find out more. The following interview with Mike Indursky, the company's Chief Marketing Officer, sets out the reasoning behind the campaign, explores how companies across the industry are reacting, and discusses whether voluntary regulation is enough. We also get some more details of Mike's views on the dangers of non-natural ingredients in personal care products, we hear a bit about Burt's Bees wider sustainability agenda, and we even find out a little more about the mysterious Burt.

TreeHugger: In launching the Greater Good campaign, Burt's Bees is taking a very pro-active, even aggressive, stance on the issue of what can be defined as 'natural' when it comes to personal care. Why is this such an important issue for you, and for consumers in general? Mike Indursky: The public is more interested in natural products than ever before, but the fact still remains that consumers are very confused about what constitutes 'natural'. To uncover this confusion, Burt's Bees recently commissioned study by TSC (a division of Yanklovich Partners Inc.) — the results were shocking, yet not that surprising [a summary of the findings can be seen at the Greater Good Website]. As the leader in natural personal care, we feel it's our responsibility to enable consumers to make an educated choice about what they put on their bodies. If a product has 'natural' written on the label, we feel a consumer should feel confident that the ingredients and processes used to develop it are the safest and most effective available. That's why we're Setting The Natural Standard, working with competitors and the industry to develop ONE standard and seal.

TH: How have other companies reacted? Does the Greater Good have broad support within the industry? Do you expect much opposition from those companies whose products do not fit your definition of 'natural'?

MI: We've received tremendous response to this within the industry. Several like-minded companies have joined us and we'll be working with them to finalize the standard and seal. Additionally, we've been asked to chair personal care products division of the Natural Products Association in their standards initiative. We've even seen companies announcing action to begin eliminating ingredients, like parabens, with human health risks associated with them.

TH: The Natural Standard that the Greater Good campaign promotes is said to be in response to the lack of regulation of natural personal care products. Do you foresee a day when this standard becomes a legal definition, or are voluntary, industry lead initiatives enough?

MI: We believe the industry will self-regulate and we are working to develop a universally recognized and regulated standard and corresponding seal, in hopes that it will go on all truly natural products. The definition we've set, which is on our website, outlines the standard. Here, very broadly, is a summary. All natural products should:

• Be made with at least 95% truly natural ingredients
• Contain no ingredients with any potential suspected human health risks
• Use no processes that significantly or adversely alter the purity/effect of the natural ingredients

TH: As well as defining what IS natural, the Natural Standard also specifically names chemicals and methods that it says should NOT be used in natural products due to potential risk to human health or the environment. Just how dangerous are chemicals like parabens, sulfates, petro chemicals or glycols? How can consumers avoid them?

MI: While the FDA has deemed these ingredients safe, there is evidence that they may have potential suspected human health risks. At least one of these ingredients, pthalates, is already banned in the EU, with another on its way. At Burt's Bees, we believe in safe natural alternatives, with similar efficacy and no risk, provide a better solution for a person's well-being. Consumers can avoid them by learning about harmful ingredients and natural alternatives on our website, where they can also sign Burt's Bill, a petition expressing consumer support of The Natural Standard, and learn what they can do, such as The 5 Questions To Ask companies about products of theirs labeled "natural" .

TH: Nowadays being a green, responsible company is about much more than just avoiding toxic chemicals or processes in the manufacture of your products. What moves is Burt's Bees making towards becoming a truly sustainable business?

MI: As a company we've always been dedicated to Earth-friendly practices. All of our packaging and promotional materials are recyclable or re-usable, made with the highest PCR content possible, and printed with soy-based inks. We recycle and compost as much waste as possible, and we are continually eliminating waste streams with an ultimate 2020 goal of Zero Waste. Aside from being a strategic imperative for the company, sustainability efforts are also driven by ECOBEES (Environmentally Conscious Organization Bringing Ecologically Empowered Solutions), a grassroots employee group that was formed to pioneer and champion environmentally friendly business practices, socially responsible initiatives, and knowledge transfer to our employees, suppliers, customers, and consumers. Finally, we have just announced hiring a new Director of Sustainability, who will continue to drive forward these initiatives.

Some other initiatives outlined for reference:

• We have a partnership with Piedmont Biofuels to convert our waste bulk oil into biofuel, reducing oil dependency and our landfill usage.
• We purchased Renewable Energy Credits from NC GreenPower and Renewable Choice Energy to offset our carbon footprint for 2006 by 100%.
• We are partnering with Habitat for Humanity to sponsor and build the first home in the first low-income "green" housing development in North Carolina.
• We distribute more than 4000 trees for The National Arbor Day Foundation during our national Bee-utify Your World Tour to offset carbon emissions from the Tour.
• We are members of the Conservation Alliance and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well as a Charter Member of the NC Sustainable Business Council and sponsor of the 2006 NC Sustainability Awards.

TH: A slight change of subject here, but when we first posted on Burt's Bees a few years back, one commenter asked us who Burt actually was. Can you give us any insight on this bearded mystery man?

MI: As you may or may not know, Burt's Bees got started in rural Maine when Burt, a former photo-journalist-turned-beekeeper picked up Roxanne Quimby hitchhiking into town for supplies. That started a friendship and partnership that resulted in turning leftover beeswax into candles and lip balm — huge hits at the local craft fairs. Burt recently celebrated his 73th birthday and to this day still enjoys life as a beekeeper in the Maine wilderness. He has been instrumental in forming Burt's Bees' response to Colony Collapse Disorder. After all, he is our resident bee expert! Point being, he is alive and well!