Jessica Alba reveals her vision for bringing ‘wellness’ to the masses

Honest Company founder Alba and CEO Nick Vlahos talk about the company's decision to expand into physical retail, how they develop new products, and how their customers changed during the pandemic.
February 28, 2022, 10:01 PM UTC
The Honest Company founder and Chief Creative Office Jessica Alba talks to Fortune about the household products company's growth plan.
Photograph by Matt Sayles

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When Jessica Alba launched The Honest Company in 2012, some saw the actor as just the latest celebrity to get on the brand bandwagon. But 10 years later, she’s the founder and chief creative officer of a publicly traded company on track to post more than $320 million in annual revenue. Her timing was good: shoppers are increasingly turning to the type of “clean,” non-toxic and sustainable consumer products the company develops and sells, helping push Honest beyond early lines including diapers and wipes, into categories like skin care and cosmetics. Still, the company faces its share of headwinds. Honest has yet to turn a profit and its stock has cratered since its May 2021 market debut.

Fortune connected with Alba and Nick Vlahos, the former Clorox executive who came on board as CEO in 2017, to talk about driving innovation, connecting with customers, and democratizing wellness.

This edited Q&A has been condensed for space and clarity.

In Honest’s IPO prospectus last year, the company projected annual market growth in the double-digit percentages in areas like non-toxic diapers and skincare for the next few years- what do you think is fueling this trend?

Jessica Alba: If I’m going to spend my time and money somewhere, I want to align myself with companies that have my values. People care about their own health and wellness [and want to see the companies they shop with reflect that.] And I definitely think the pandemic put such an emphasis on how important it is to think about your health and wellness and to really take ownership of those decisions. The other big piece of that is thinking about how, collectively, we could, if we shifted our behavior, impact the health of the planet that will affect the overall health of the human race.

In terms of the pandemic, do you expect to see some consumers going back to their old habits or do you think we’re seeing a permanent shift?  

Alba: This was a moment of awakening for everyone. I do think a lot of people made pretty major shifts in their outlook on life and quality of life, self care, mindfulness. I think there was a massive global shift in consciousness. You know, people having to spend time indoors for extended periods of time and not having that human interaction and not having the same freedoms. I do think that we all went through a version of a reckoning with ourselves and our choices and our life and really questioning how we want to live our life. I don’t think you can take that experience away from anyone. And I don’t think you can turn that around.

Nick Vlahos: You know, our mission is really to inspire more people who live conscientiously, meaning being conscientious about ingredients. With COVID and what’s transpired, people are more interested in understanding what’s in a product.

Talk about how you look for and create new products—and how that has changed since the early years of the company?

Alba: I really approached the business through a real consumer need I had, and I would say that that is what we lean into. Obviously going through the growth of the company and different folks who have invested over the years and want validation from McKinsey studies or what have you, before tackling a new category or going into a new space. But ultimately, I always like to ground our innovation team, or our R&D team, brand managers, everyone, in the consumer: Put yourself in the consumers’ shoes, have empathy and compassion for these life stages that people are going through. Think through that lens and think of what is a true solution set— instead of just driving one product, jamming it into their life.

There are so many facets to people’s lives. And there’s so many ways that we can show up to bring ease to their lives, to bring solutions to their lives, and really solve for pain points that frankly, they didn’t even know they had.

Vlahos: Listening to our consumers through our social channels has always been really a key part of our innovation process. When the pandemic hit, a lot of folks were starting to think about what’s in the air, what’s the impact of the computer screen and being on Zoom. Because we have our own innovation labs here in-house, we were able to maintain our laboratories here to do development. The insight that we had during this time period was that there are these environmental aggressors that are impacting people’s skin. So we introduced a daily defense line of products. You’re not getting that [kind of insight] from a study or from just a survey.

Alba (right) with Honest Company CEO Nick Vlahos.
Photograph by Matt Sayles

The major CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies have gotten arguably more innovative, faster, and more focused on ‘better-for-you’ products in the last few years. Do you see them as moving in on your turf? How does Honest continue to stand out?

Vlahos: At the end of the day, consumers want a relationship with a brand, even more so today than ever. A benefit that we have versus a lot of the major CPG players is that we have a platform brand that can go across multiple categories. That’s an advantage for us because as we start to develop relationships within a household with our products, we then have the ability to take Honest into a variety of categories.

Making great natural products can be hard, and Honest has had stumbles on that front in the past [including a class-action lawsuit over claims about ingredients in personal and home care products, which it settled in 2017.] What steps have you taken to make sure you’re able to deliver on the promises you make to your consumers?

Vlahos: Product is job number one, because we’re a consumer products company, and we want to make sure that from an effectiveness perspective, we’re delivering against our promise to our consumers. And that promise is all about clean ingredients that are not just clean, but also effective and going to perform at parity or better than the conventional products within the market. As I joined the company, we also brought in best-in-class individuals to be able to architect that innovation process within Honest and we’ve created rigor within the process in areas like procurement, product development, and formula development, as well as within supply chain. Consumers are voting with their dollars.

Alba: It is super important for us to deliver on that promise. A lot of other companies out there do use a lot of the same labs and often the same formulas. But we actually formulate a lot of our own products in-house.

Honest started as digital native brand—meaning you initially only sold your products online. But you’ve since moved into brick-and-mortar retail through partnerships with companies like Target and Ulta Beauty. Why is that physical presence important to the company?

Vlahos: We want to be where the consumer is, and it’s up to us to figure out how to make sure that’s a profitable business. And that’s always been kind of the Achilles heel for a lot of companies. What we’ve seen with our retail partners is that they now want to build out the dot com side of their business. We have an advantage there as a digitally native business. We can help these partners. We’re not looking for just a transaction but really a relationship, where we build this business.

If you’re interested in walking into a store, we also want to make sure we’re driving accessibility for consumers and you can find our products at a Target store, you can find our products at a Walgreens store.

Alba: I think that health and wellness should be available to everyone no matter where they are. And just the nature of retail and brick and mortar means, if you live near [the right] retailer, then you have access to healthier products. But if you don’t, too bad. To me, that just felt really wrong. Everyone deserves to live that healthy life and to have access to healthy beauty products. We’ll partner with retailers and we’ll strategize around how to bring this promise to life for their consumer—no matter if it’s in Nordstrom, or if it’s in Costco, or if it’s in Target or if it’s in Ulta (Beauty.)

This was a moment of awakening for everyone. I do think a lot of people made pretty major shifts in their outlook on life and quality of life, self care, mindfulness…And I don’t think you can turn that around.

—Jessica Alba, founder and chief creative officer, The Honest Company

How do the two of you work together? What’s your collaboration style?

Alba: It’s never one certain way. Sometimes we talk every day. Sometimes it’s once a week, sometimes a few times a week. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s hours. Sometimes it’s therapy sessions! Sometimes it’s you know, it all talking about our kids. It really just depends on what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with us on on personal levels.

What’s the Honest Company culture like? How do you think about developing your talent?

Vlahos: We walk the talk around our organization, around personal development. One of our core values is curiosity. How do we ensure that each of us continues to thirst to gain knowledge and understanding of where business is today and where consumers are today and tomorrow? And how do we continue to really develop a muscle around being passionate about our consumer and being passionate about our business? That translates into passion for our teams, and our teammates.

Alba: Diversity and inclusion are at the core of who we are and what we stand for. And that means people should be seen and heard and feel taken care of at every stage of their professional development.

Jessica, as an actor you were famous long before you became a founder. Do you ever feel that the company is too tied up with your celebrity? 

Alba: I was able to take something that I had built for 20 years in entertainment, take that authentic relationship I have with the media, and then focus all of that into something that I feel is my real purpose, which is to create this company that stands for these values that ultimately the consumers really needed.  

Vlahos: Jessica was a consumer first. A lot of times you see celebrities creating brands and products and they put their name out there and slap a label on a product and that’s kind of the business. But Jessica had the insight around health and wellness when she was pregnant with her first child Honor, around an allergic reaction she had to a detergent product. So she was a consumer that looked for a product as a solution for her household first. The amplification around celebrity is great, but not only is Jess a founder, and obviously a mega influencer, she’s a board member, she’s a business person, she’s a philanthropist, she’s an activist. She has many hats but it’s all rooted in this consumer insights piece.

What’s next for the company? Where does growth come from for you guys?

Vlahos: There is a long runway ahead of us as it pertains to categories that we’re currently in. So a lot of opportunity as we look to the future is around driving more and more awareness of our products. That’s job number one. Number two is this innovation cadence that we’ve created with these in-house labs that we’ve developed here in Southern California, to really be able to drive that social listening that informs our innovation process, to really be agile and continue to introduce award-winning products within the marketplace.  

Jessica, could you ever have imagined in 2011, that one day Honest would be a publicly traded company?

Alba: You have to have the vision that you’re going to be a big global brand in order to even get to that point. I never knew exactly when it would happen or how it would happen. But I always did envision that I was going to be able to build a brand led by consumers that was going to be large and global.