Jessica Alba's Honest Co. May Not Be So Honest

Normally, I wouldn’t care that a company co-founded by actress Jessica Alba and ironically named Honest “guarantees” that its laundry detergent is made without a chemical called SLS. But when it denies solid evidence to the contrary, stating the Wall Street Journal substituted junk science for credible journalism,” that gets my attention.

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And when that same company has raised $222 million from big-name Silicon Valley venture capital firms and other investors, most recently at a whopping $1.7 billion valuation, is reportedly working on an IPO, and has based its entire brand on honesty and integrity, that definitely gets my spidey sense tingling.

Honest is further evidence of a troubling trend: startups raise enormous amounts of venture capital at sky-high valuations and experience rapid growth based on big claims by their rock-star founders. And when solid investigative journalism finds gaping holes in their stories, they issue vehement denials while quietly changing their websites to spin their way out of trouble.

I’m talking about you, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. But I digress.

The trouble with Santa Monica-based Honest centers on sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS, a foaming agent found in all sorts of everyday household cleaning products, from soaps and shampoos to toothpaste and laundry detergent.

At worst, SLS is a skin irritant, but according to the Journal, consumer product companies such as Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and even famously green Seventh Generation vouch for its safety in their products. Nevertheless, Alba identifies SLS as a toxin in her book “The Honest Life.”

Call me reckless, but I’m a lifelong user of Colgate toothpaste. I couldn’t care less that it has SLS. And while I don’t use any Honest products, I did look up the laundry detergent in question on the company’s website and it does indeed provide an “Honestly Free Guarantee” that it’s “made without: SLS,” among other things Honest deems scary.

But then the Journal had the audacity to ask two independent labs to test the stuff and, lo and behold, both concluded that Honest’s laundry detergent does indeed contain a “significant amount” of SLS.

Fair enough. It happens, right? All Honest has to do is come clean (no pun intended) and admit that somebody screwed up. You know, be honest.

But nope. Instead, Honest doubled down, saying, “We do not make our products with sodium lauryl sulfate.” And in a statement to People Magazine, the startup called the Journal’s reporting “false” and “reckless.” It went on to “set the record straight,” saying, “we use Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS),” which it claims is a “safer” and “gentler alternative.”

Now that is puzzling. In my experience, the Journal’s investigative reporting is pretty ironclad. So maybe someone at Honest is confused or misinformed. I mean, a company with that name couldn’t possibly be, well, dishonest, could it? Of course not. Unless … hmm, could it be that there’s more to the story? Glad you asked.

Apparently, Honest doesn’t make its own products but rather outsources manufacturing to partners and suppliers. And so the quest for truth begins.

Honest showed the Journal a document from the company that makes its laundry detergent, Earth Friendly Products, aka ECOS, stating that there is no SLS in the product. But the Cypress, Calif. company said the certificate came from Trichromatic West, a chemical company that supplies the SCS and told the Journal they never tested for SLS.

So now we know that Honest’s claims that its products don’t have SLS may indeed be false, since nobody in the supply chain actually tested for it. But how exactly did the SLS get into the detergent? Can you sense the “aha” moment coming? Are you ready? Well, here it comes.

Turns out that SCS is a mixture of several cleaning agents that actually includes SLS, and plenty of it.

And there you have it. Mystery solved. And while the Journal verified those findings with more than a dozen scientists and chemical companies, Honest apparently continues to deny that SCS contains SLS. But that didn’t stop it from softening the language on its website with plans to do the same with its product labels.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

While Honest may not seem like a classic tech unicorn, it is primarily an ecommerce company backed by top tier VCs General Catalyst Partners, IVP and Lightspeed Venture Partners, among others. And its CEO, Brian Lee, is an experienced serial entrepreneur who co-founded LegalZoom and ShoeDazzle.

With that kind of pedigree, the question remains, why wouldn’t Honest just, well, be honest?

Simple. Its astronomical valuation and upcoming IPO depend entirely on its brand having a unique value proposition to distinguish it from an otherwise undifferentiated and crowded field of commodity consumer goods. Admitting their products have some of the same big bad chemicals as all the others might not go over so well.

And there you have it. Even at Honest, it looks like marketing trumps integrity.