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Exclusive: The Laundress founders come clean about why they sold to Unilever

The inside story of how a consumer goods conglomerate bought an eco-friendly, fashion-forward laundry brand for a reported $100 million.

Exclusive: The Laundress founders come clean about why they sold to Unilever
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, founders of The Laundress. [Photo: courtesy of Laundress]

Back in 2004, the concept behind a little startup called The Laundress seemed kind of crazy: The brand pitched itself as a luxurious, fashionable laundry detergent company in a world where most people bought inexpensive grocery store brands. But 15 years later, The Laundress is a global phenomenon, creating a lifestyle brand around humble home cleaning products. The Laundress’s 51,000 followers on Instagram avidly scan pictures of marble-floored laundry rooms stocked with the brand’s white bottles of detergent, and racks of sparkly party outfits about to be laundered.

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This week, The Laundress’s founders, Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, sold their company to Unilever for a reported $100 million. The acquisition was brokered by Romitha Mally, a vice chair at UBS who also helped facilitate Dollar Shave Club’s sale to Unilever. While the terms of the deal were not publicly disclosed, a source familiar with the negotiations told Fast Company that the $100 million figure is accurate.

The Laundress will now sit alongside the many other grocery store brands within Unilever’s portfolio, including Q-tip, Dove, and Klondike, and some more premium brands like Dermalogica and Talenti. With this acquisition, The Laundress’s founders also managed to succeed where Jessica Alba failed. You might recall back in 2016, when Unilever was considering acquiring Alba’s eco-friendly home brand, The Honest Company, but ultimately purchased its competitor Seventh Generation.

Whiting and Boyd will stay on, managing The Laundress’s headquarters and store in New York. “The brand will remain the same except it will have the chance to reach a much larger audience,” says Mally.

[Photo: courtesy of Laundress]
Before they started the company, The Laundress’s founders were hustling in their jobs in the luxury fashion industry, with Whiting serving as a senior designer at Ralph Lauren and Boyd as a manager for Chanel’s Ready-to-Wear division. They noticed an odd gap in the market. While consumers were willing to invest a lot of money in beautifully tailored jeans and designer T-shirts, they would go home and launder these outfits using the same old run-of-the-mill detergents–Tide, All, Gain–that they had purchased from Target or Walgreens. Alternatively, they would send their clothes to dry cleaners where the garments would be exposed to toxic chemicals, and would often come back in worse shape than before.

“Our fundamental premise was that you don’t need to send your clothes to the dry cleaners,” says Whiting. “We focused on creating different formulas for different types of fabric, which was different from many detergents that have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

They had the unorthodox idea to create a brand that had all the marks of a luxury brand: higher-quality ingredients, a focus on elegant design, and a superior customer experience. And yes, the price would also be higher. While a jumbo 100 oz. bottle of Tide costs $12 on Amazon, The Laundress’s 32 oz. signature detergent sells for $20.50 on the brand’s website. “Coming from luxury fashion, the emphasis is always on the materials,” says Boyd. “Natural ingredients are actually far more efficacious than synthetic ones, although they are more expensive. We were not willing to sacrifice quality for price.”

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A risk that paid off

It was a risky, unorthodox idea, but it took off. Whiting and Boyd poured their own money into the company, and have not taken any VC funding. Today, The Laundress now has more than 85 different products that go beyond laundry to other home cleaning products like bleach, surface cleaner, and dish soap. The Laundress has three boutiques, in New York, Tokyo, and Seoul, that all have an upmarket, elegant aesthetic.

The Laundress was among the first home cleaning brands that sold products through its website, forging a relationship directly with consumers. But the brand is also sold in a large network of retail stores through more than 1,500 wholesale accounts. And unlike traditional laundry brands that are sold at the grocery or drug store, The Laundress is sold at high-end fashion boutiques and department stores including Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, and Bandier. Partnerships with other luxury brands, like perfumer Le Labo, mean that The Laundress products fit seamlessly on shelves alongside other luxury home and fashion brands.

[Photo: courtesy of Laundress]
Boyd and Whiting were intrigued by the Unilever partnership because of the potential to expand to a much wider array of retailers, particularly in international markets. Boyd says that Unilever will continue its relationships with all of The Laundress’s current retailers, but plans to expand the brand further, through its much larger wholesale network. “From our very first business plan, we had planned to have a strategic partner somewhere down the line,” she says. “We needed to find a larger partner to take us to the next level of scale.”

Releasing the toxins

From the start, The Laundress emphasized using concentrated, eco-friendly chemicals in their formulations, that are all  biodegradable. Whiting says this was primarily because the founders believed these ingredients were superior and more effective than the less expensive ingredients other brands used. However, the additional benefit of these ingredients is that they are non-toxic, and free from phthalates, phosphate, and parabens, all of which are known to cause harm.

Over the last 15 years, consumers have become increasingly aware about the toxins in their home products, which has spurred the growth of other non-toxic home cleaning brands, like Method, Mrs Meyers, and Seventh Generation. This may offer a clue as to why Unilever would want to acquire a brand like The Laundress, which seems a little out of place next to much of its portfolio, which consists of everyday grocery store brands. The Laundress gives Unilever a chance to tap into a market of consumers who are concerned about the impact of home products on their own bodies, as well as on the environment, and are willing to pay a premium for non-toxic products.

The Laundress’s founders understood the potential early on to turn a home cleaning brand into a lifestyle brand, one associated with healthy living, elegant clothes, and beautiful homes. Unilever appears to believe this is a winning formula, particularly for millennials and Gen Z. It recently spun out a new brand targeting younger consumers called Love Beauty and Planet, which is both eco-friendly and non-toxic. The brand creates both beauty and household cleaning products in elegant packaging, pitching them as part of an enlightened, modern lifestyle.

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[Photo: courtesy of Laundress]
In its own announcement about this acquisition, Unilever said it fit into its larger Sustainable Living Plan, which is a sweeping initiative that covers everything from reducing waste and pollution to improving the quality of workers. Many of Unilever’s targets are extremely broad, including things like encouraging hand washing in developing countries (using Unilever soap) and improving oral health (using Unilever toothpaste).

It’s unclear exactly how The Laundress will help Unilever achieve some of its tangible sustainability goals. That said, The Laundress has been ahead of its time in terms of understanding how young consumers interact with their everyday products, and there is no doubt that Unilever will want to tap into their insights about how to build a successful, eco-friendly, premium brand for the next generation of consumers.

“We’re seeing over and over again that young consumers care a great deal about the everyday products they are surrounding themselves with,” says Mally, who is familiar with the industry, having overseen several deals with Unilever. “The Laundress was ahead of this trend, but now we’re seeing the rest of the industry catch up.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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