Correction: An earlier version of this article said the company had not tested its products and suggested that failure to test, in this case, was tantamount to lying. This post has been updated to include a company statement released after this column's publication which says it had conducting testing and to remove suggestions that the company had lied. Inc.com apologizes for the errors.

Movie and TV star Jessica Alba has been riding business success with her Honest Company, a startup so successful that it joined the unicorn club of young companies with billion-dollar-plus valuations. The success wasn't due to her celebrity, she's said. Instead, it was caring about toxic chemicals in personal care products.

But Alba and her company have been stumbling hard since last fall. The reason isn't that people haven't liked the products. Far from it. Now questions are being raised as to whether it's delivering what it promised.

Using chemicals Honest said it wouldn't?

The latest example comes courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, which sent out samples of Honest's laundry detergent to two testing labs. The results were bad, at least from a marketing and goodwill view:

One of the primary ingredients Honest tells consumers to avoid is a cleaning agent called sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, which can be found in everyday household items from Colgate toothpaste to Tide detergent and Honest says can irritate skin. The company lists SLS first in the "Honestly free of" label of verboten ingredients it puts on bottles of its laundry detergent, one of Honest's first and most popular products.
But two independent lab tests commissioned by The Wall Street Journal determined Honest's liquid laundry detergent contains SLS.

The Honest website clearly makes the claim that SLS is not in the products.

UPDATE: In response to the Journal's story, the company released this statement:
"Despite providing The Wall Street Journal with substantial evidence to the contrary, they falsely claimed our laundry detergent contains sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). To set the record straight, we use sodium coco sulfate (SCS) in our brand's laundry detergent because it is a gentler alternative that is less irritating and safer to use. Rigorous testing and analysis both by our internal research and development teams as well as further testing by external partners have confirmed this fact." 

Promises to consumers

It's hard to believe that two different testing labs would mistakenly come to the same conclusion, and that's more than an oops. Even though the chemical is in many widely used consumer products, Honest--and Alba--drew a line and said that the company wouldn't use it. And yet, at least according to these two testing labs the Journal contracted, it did.

Alba and her partners seem earnest about what they want to do. But wanting the best isn't enough. Clearly the facts are in dispute. If the allegations are true, then Honest has made promises that it hasn't kept. If you do that--whether because you couldn't be bothered, you didn't realize that you didn't know how, or you were sloppy--you have to back up what you promise as a regular practice. It's the same as telling someone you'll show up for a meeting at noon and then being a half-hour late. You might have run into traffic, but you clearly didn't check what the drive might be like ahead of time or leave with sufficient margin to still be prompt.

Honest uses contract manufacturers and not its own facilities. The company knows how controversial this can get, as it has a blog post addressing that some of its products (not the detergent in question) are made in China.

What Honest told the Journal was that its manufacturer provided documentation that the detergent contains no SLS. The actual manufacturer, Earth Friendly Products, said it depended on documentation from one of its suppliers, Trichromatic West. The Journal said it talked to Trichromatic and was told that it didn't add any SLS and didn't test for the substance.

Not the first controversy

Manufacturing is tricky, and when you start getting multiple layers of one company providing ingredients or components to another, something can go wrong. 

The company saw other problems last fall when it was sued more than once over its sunscreen, with plaintiffs claiming that the product was ineffective. At least one of the suits Honest claimed was "baseless and without merit." Instead, Alba chalked it up to a need for better education of the company's customers.

It's great to want to do the right thing. But marketing and good intentions fall apart when actions don't keep pace. Honest should have seen this coming after the sunscreen problem. If a major premise of your company is not using certain chemicals in your products, then you have to make sure that those chemicals aren't in them, and that is ultimately on you because your name is on the package.

And when you name the company Honest, such events are body blows to the brand.

Published on: Mar 11, 2016