"Nature Becomes You" is more than just a marketing tagline for Burt's Bees. The Durham, N.C.-based manufacturer of natural personal-care products -- best known for its popular lip balm -- sees sustainability as the starting point for its innovation process.
"We really do try to minimize the environmental impact from beginning to end in the ingredients we choose and how we manufacture and pretty much everything we do," said Ken McLellan, business connection leader for Burt's Bees, which was acquired by the Clorox Co. (IW 500/195) in November 2007.
"It's also about natural ingredients, obviously -- finding ingredients that are safe, that have a low sustainability impact with regard to their sourcing and how they're harvested, extracted and ultimately brought to us."
McLellan, speaking Tuesday at the 2012 Front End of Innovation conference in Orlando, Fla., detailed the three "pillars" that serve as the foundation of the company's innovation efforts. They are:
"We really look to food as one of the places for innovation, whether it be food ingredients, the way people think about ingesting goodness into their body -- or on their body in this case -- or even more tactically, how food is manufactured and brought to market."
As an example, McLellan pointed to Burt's Bees moisturizers, which feature an emulsifier used in the food industry. The emulsifier replicates naturally occurring liquid crystals that allow water and oil to stay together.
"The skin more readily accepts [the emulsion-based moisturizer], because it recognizes the structure," McLellan said. "So it gets absorbed better and the moisturization lasts longer."
Thanks to the "innovation breakthrough" borrowed from the food industry, Burt's Bees claims that its moisturizers last at least 24 hours, McLellan added.
"We were the first natural personal-care product to ever get a claim like that, really anything close," he noted. "Prior to this, the best we could get would be eight hours, maybe 10 hours."
The Power of Nature's Defenses
A key ingredient in the company's acne-treatment products comes from an unlikely source: the black willow tree.
Salicylic acid, which occurs naturally in the bark of the black willow tree, protects the tree "by regulating temperature, moisture, nutrients and attacks by environmental stressors," according to Burt's Bees.
As a key ingredient in Burt's Bees acne treatments, salicylic acid plays a similar role.
"It is very effective in clearing out and drying up some of the bacteria that resides in the oils in the pores of your skin," McLellan said. "And it also presents a barrier to prevent future acne."
Synthetic salicylic acid, McLellan noted, is effective but tends to be "really hard on the skin."
"There are a lot of people who have acne problems who can't take it because it causes skin irritation and negative reactions," McLellan said. "It's just a really harsh, harsh ingredient."
Fortunately, that's not the case with the natural version of salicylic acid.
"In nature, we found that it doesn't have those negative attributes for the vast majority of consumers who try it," he said.
" ... This is probably the product line that I'm most proud of, just given the testimonials that we get back from lifelong acne sufferers, who have tried everything on the market, who have been dealing with acne through puberty, through teenagerhood, into adulthood, and they finally found something that works. And it goes back to the power of nature's defenses."
Biomimicry -- emulating nature's best ideas and processes to solve human problems -- is "a really, really exciting space," McLellan asserted. But he also admitted that Burt's Bees has a long way to go in this area.
"We're at the very beginning of our journey, and I hope in a couple years from now to come back and talk about some places where we've been able to use biomimicry for some product launches," McLellan said. "But we're not there yet."
To illustrate the potential of biomimicry, though, he pointed to examples such as Velcro, which is inspired by the design of the burdock plant,
The key to harnessing the power of "3.8 billion years of evolution in plants and animals," McLellan asserted, is to "take the time to ask the right questions and define the problem."
"And if you do that here as you look to biomimicry for inspiration on your product-development and product-design problems and breakthroughs for the future," he added, "it will bear fruit."
Packaging Still a Challenge
As a consumer packaged-goods manufacturer that is committed to sustainability, McLellan lamented that it's been challenging to find environmentally friendly packaging solutions.
"A lot of our packaging claims around improving or minimizing harm to the environment have been around a very high proportion of postconsumer or postindustrial recycled content," McLellan said. "But we're still using resin. We're still using plastics. We're trying desperately to get away from it."
However, McLellan noted, "the packaging industry is responding gradually," and breakthroughs in natural packaging are being made. As an example, he pointed to one packaging solution used by Burt's Bees that features a mixture of water and potato starch.
"It's really easy to make, it's very cost-effective, it protects the product, and it's recyclable and compostable, he said. "Hopefully there are a host [of similar solutions] coming."
While finding sustainable packaging has been a challenge, the relationship between Burt's Bees and parent company Clorox hasn't been.
McLellan acknowledged that Clorox's "corporate sustainability program had to catch up and embrace and be a part of where Burt's was going." Still, as strange as it might sound, he said it's been a "really heartwarming acquisition."
"It started off as a very at arm's-length relationship, really with both companies having the invitation to influence each other," McLellan said. "More recently, some of the functions -- the back-office functions and other ones -- have integrated, but the brand and the R&D -- basically the soul and demand creation of Burt's -- remain separate.
"The two organizations do influence each other in a very positive way."