Perception Versus Reality and Unlikely Allies

A story from Scotts Miracle-Gro illustrates the importance of transparency in communicating with customers, the challenge of distinguishing between perception and reality, and the difficulty that accompanies merely defending the science behind the story. It involves toxic algal blooms, a problem for which Scotts was unfairly blamed.

I learned about this story by watching an engaging GreenBiz webinar this week, “How Storytelling and Partnerships Can Bridge the Gap Between Stakeholders and Science.” Not all webinars are worth the time it takes to watch them, but this was one of the good ones.

Toxic algal blooms are a serious threat to water quality in the Florida Everglades, Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and many waterways throughout the world. The source of these algal blooms? High levels of phosphorus in the water. Excess phosphorus creates an environment in which cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, flourish. Cyanobacteria produce toxins that affect the human nervous system, liver, and skin.

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sampled water from 1250 lakes in the U.S. and found moderate to high levels of cyanobacteria (over 20,000 cells/mL) in 315 of them. Algal blooms, where visible scum forms on the water surface, are associated with cyanobacteria levels of at least 100,000 cells/mL.

Scotts, as one of the largest manufacturers of fertilizers and pesticides in the U.S., became a target for environmental groups, who called them out as a chemical company producing phosphorus-laden products. Miracle-Gro is a product sold to homeowners, a group responsible for 2 percent of fertilizer use in this country. Commercial agriculture is responsible for the bulk of phosphorus leaching into water supplies, but attacking farmers is not a popular position. Common wisdom says to go after the chemical giants that are selling fertilizers directly to consumers, even if the problem isn’t primarily their fault.

Jim King, Communications Officer for Scotts and President of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, says that the company’s initial gut reaction to being attacked was to go on the defensive and take the attitude of “we were right and we knew it” based on the science behind the source of phosphorus contamination. But customers didn’t want to hear about the science. Sales dropped.

Recognizing the need to address consumers’ concerns, Scotts soon developed a phosphorus-free version of Miracle-Gro. They learned that existing lawns have high enough naturally occurring levels of phosphorous that they could completely remove the element from their fertilizers while keeping them just as effective. While this begs the question of why the fertilizer contained phosphorus in the first place, the response does show that Scotts was listening to consumers.

Homeowners no longer routinely add phosphorus to their lawns when they fertilize. Of course, since household fertilizers were not the primary source of excessive phosphorous levels in lakes and rivers, toxic algal bloom has only increased in recent years.

King recognizes that educating consumers is difficult, especially when they are inundated with sensational news from multiple sources. It can be especially hard to convince consumers that the science is sound. Starting a discussion from the perspective of science is not usually the best approach.

The average consumer is not trained in chemistry and does not really understand how to best protect the environment. Company messaging needs to build trust through action and being transparent about the process the company is undertaking to address a real or perceived environmental threat. Customers want a consistent message that they can understand. Scotts responded to this desire by sharing the whole story, including mistakes made along the way, to show customers that they have nothing to hide and respect customers’ dual goals of growing a beautiful yard and not harming the environment.

Scotts has been working with multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose mission it is to protect clean water. As a result, some of its harshest critics have become its advocates. One of those is the Everglades Foundation, an organization devoted to protecting and restoring Florida’s Everglades. Scotts formed the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation in February 2017 to expand and formalize its efforts to combat water pollution. Through a partnership with the Everglades Foundation, Scotts sponsors the George Barley Water Prize, a competition that will award $10 million to the group that comes up with the best scalable solution to remove phosphorus from fresh water. Scientists around the world, including over 100 teams from 13 countries, are working on it.

Removing phosphorus from lakes and rivers is not an unsolvable problem, but to date no reasonably priced method exists. The hope is that the incentive of the Barley Prize will encourage the kind of ingenuity and innovation required to create an effective, scalable solution while raising awareness of the algal bloom problem. These types of partnerships between for-profit companies and NGOs can provide an alternative to consequences imposed in the form of added regulations. Given today’s anti-regulation political climate in the U.S, such partnerships look more important than ever.