Jessica Alba Has Always Had A Vision
She became a mother at the top of her career — and then she added another one. The actress and entrepreneur on building the Honest Company from the ground up.
Second acts are often considered the lesser known sequels of our lives, a respectable-but-not-quite-blockbuster chapter in the grand scheme. But what if your second act eclipses the original? That’s been the story of actress Jessica Alba, whose Honest brand diapers quickly achieved cult status when they launched in 2012 with a suite of baby products and cleaning supplies geared toward parents looking for eco-conscious, chemical-free products that still looked cute. Since then, Alba and the Honest Company helped usher in an era of mission-centric branding, popularizing products with a heavy emphasis on sustainability and natural ingredients. Scroll through Instagram or stroll through Target, and you'll find products like these everywhere, the Honest Company still chief among them.
But the path to Honest hasn’t always been straightforward or simple, and as Alba, who turns 40 this year, looks ahead to both a professional and personal evolution, she considers what her next chapter might look like.
When I reach Jessica Alba on the phone at her home in Los Angeles, I begin the call as I have instinctively started all professional meetings this year: by apologizing for any erroneous baby sounds (screams, really) in the background. But Alba is quick to dismiss any such apologies, since the mother of three (Honor, 12, Haven, 9, and Hayes, 3) is all too familiar with the gymnastics involved in managing work and family life.
Like most of us, Alba and her family have been sheltering in place at home, with her eldest two attending virtual school while she works. And while her outsized success has her hunkering down in a house that’s probably much bigger and comfier than, say, my apartment, it can’t shield her from the realities of grief and pain that the pandemic has brought to so many families.
“It's been challenging, like everyone has experienced,” she says. “I think you just try to take each day at a time. I'm trying to be grateful for what [my children] do have. Going through grief when people do get sick — and people have died in our family — just going through that, it's all been really heavy." She says she's been particularly aware of how her attitude affects her kids. “Your children's reality is really going to be dependent on your outlook and how you approach it in all this madness.”
Of course, it hasn’t all been gloomy. The 39-year-old is making a point to find joy where she can, looking for opportunities to balance taking care of herself and time with her family in a way that, at least temporarily, lets her relax and forget the pandemic exists for a brief moment. “It does get pretty Groundhog Day, [so] once a week I try to take a bath,” she says. “I'll put the baby — I still call him a baby — in this little mini bathtub he has. I'll put his [bath tub] next to mine because that kid loves to pee in the bath. Then he has his toys. I can be in my bath, and he's in his, and put my face mask on and just kind of sit there. It doesn't feel heavy. It's just sort of organic time to hang.”
“I couldn't go back to what I was doing before and be authentic,” says Alba. “I just couldn't. I didn't care about it the same way.”
You can so clearly hear the value Alba places on time with her children in everything she says. She enthuses about creating YouTube content with her two daughters and doing spa days with all three of the kids when she can. Her approach to motherhood is firmly rooted in being aware and present when she’s with them, and a big part of that awareness, for Alba, means being vigilant about what's in every single product she exposes her kids to, from diapers to baby shampoo. As a mother of two who has gotten, well, lazier about my own diligence with my second child, I was curious if she’s maintained that vigilance or if she's relaxed a bit, now that she's no longer an anxious new parent but a veteran mother of three.
Nope. “I'm still the person that annoyingly is always trying to look for the most sustainable, least toxic option,” Alba laughs. “Every time, I'm just like, that’s just my reality.” But it’s exactly that reality, that search for a better way, that led to Honest.
When Alba had her first child in 2008, she was coming off blockbuster franchises like Fantastic Four and comedies like Good Luck Chuck. Before that, she was a part of a slew of popular series from Flipper to Dark Angel, which, in many ways, had us millennials feeling like we grew up with the dark-haired, doe-eyed actress. In the years right before she got pregnant, Alba was part of a pack of young celebrity women who came of age alongside the rise of outlets like TMZ. Their dating lives, outfits, nights out, and everything in between were being blasted out to the entire world on the internet and social media; the naked misogyny of the tabloid press seemingly spared no one. Having recently watched the powerful documentary, Framing Britney Spears, I wondered whether Alba’s decision to step back from the industry and create Honest had anything to do with wanting to take control of her own image and identity at a time when starlets had little power over how they were seen.
She’s adamant that, in fact, it was much more than that.
As Alba was set to welcome her first baby, health scares from her childhood came flooding back to the foreground. “My mother had cancer at a really young age, in her early 20s. I grew up with chronic illness. I had five surgeries before I was 11 years old. I had chronic allergies, and I was hospitalized a lot as a child,” she says. As she was preparing to become a mother herself, her health and the health of her new baby became utterly paramount. “I had this real moment of, I want to live, and thrive, and spend as much time with this little person that I'm bringing into the world as possible and stay. So, my health matters. I want this little person to be healthy. And it's really freaking hard to be happy when you don't have your health.”
“That's really what motivated me,” she insists. “My motivation was not like, ‘Am I ever going to get hired again?’ Frankly, I was at the top of my career,” she says. And then, after Honor’s birth, everything changed. “I couldn't go back to what I was doing before and be authentic. I just couldn't. I didn't care about it the same way,” she says. “It was something bigger. I felt like if I was going to have this platform, then what can I do with it that could be meaningful and make a difference? That just felt so real when I became a mom for the first time.”
That something bigger became what is now a ubiquitous brand that has set the standard for affordable, eco-friendly family fare. In a decade, Honest has evolved from baby products to a full slate of skin care, beauty, and lifestyle, while still maintaining their identity. Honest’s new line of Clean Conscious diapers, for instance, has been redesigned for better absorbency, a wetness indicator, and “blowout protection.” Alba is quick to clarify, though, that getting here has not been easy.
“Building a brand and building a business is fucking impossible,” she tells me. “And to be good at it and for it to thrive and scale, it is really hard. If anything, I was like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ It took me three-and-a-half years just to find partners to even join me, and I got lots of rejection. I had to learn how to build decks. In every stage, I'm trying to get better and better as a business person, but it's a totally different skill set than just taking your influence and fame and putting your name on a package and doing a press tour, picking out a couple designs. You know what I mean?"
This level of involvement is what sets Alba apart in the suddenly-crowded field of celebrity mompreneurs. She’s not just licensing her image — she is as involved in what happens behind the scenes as she is as the face of the brand, and she is unabashed in saying so, and in owning the enormity of what she’s built. “I think the difference in what I have done is I actually built something that never existed,” she says. "We have chemists in house, regulatory teams, sourcing, supply, operations… It's unprecedented in our category. We were the first, really, at scale to do it.”
“Jessica Alba truly started the movement for what being a modern female entrepreneur could look like for a new generation of women. Without her, very few of us would be as multi-hyphenated as we are now,” says poet-artist-activist, and most recently, children's book author, Cleo Wade, who calls Alba a pioneer. “The most inspiring part of her journey is that she did this — created a massively successful business and got on the cover of Forbes by leaning into motherhood rather than turning her back to it, as so many women before us felt they had to do in order to be successful. And most impressively, she is one that makes it a point to bring along a lot of other women through the doors she opens.”
That's not to say there haven't been bumps in the road. 2017 was a rough year for The Honest Company as sales fell flat and scrutiny increased. Voluntary recalls hurt both their bottom line and their squeaky-clean reputation, and Honest changed their ingredient list not long after an investigation by The Wall Street Journal found sodium lauryl-sulfate in the popular laundry detergent (though the company disputed the lab’s findings). All this while photos of babies with sunburns due to the mislabeling of their popular sunscreens were fresh in the minds of anyone on a parenting Facebook group. “The Honest Company can't catch a break,” went the headlines.
The dramatic change in fortunes for the company forced Alba and her team to make some big changes — they underwent a redesign, brought R&D in-house, and made a change in leadership. The company more than recovered. Last year saw an increase in sales, including an award-winning, "plant-based" hand sanitizer that makes no claims about preventing COVID-19 but comes in pleasing scents like Lavender Field, Free & Clear, and Coastal Surf.
The work of rebuilding can unnerve even the most veteran entrepreneur, but Alba relishes the parts of the process that so often prove the most rewarding in the end. When I mention the company’s diaper rash spray, for example, Alba really lights up. I have a 10-month-old baby at home and the brand had sent me some products to test. “I've wanted this [product] since I had Honor,” she tells me. “The process of getting the thick cream on your hands and then it would get under your nails, and you're rubbing it on a very sensitive area. We finally made it, and it's amazing. So, stuff like that is just very satisfying."
I told Alba that I also found it extremely satisfying. In fact, I tell her, I’ve been looking for something like this since I had my first kid three years ago. And suddenly I’m no longer talking to Jessica Alba, starlet and entrepreneur — we’re just two moms enthusing about bum spray and the relief of finding something that makes your life a little easier. Despite the scale and reach of Honest, at the end of the day, it feels like this is what really matters to Alba, and why she made the leap: the impact her products have at home, the feeling of finally getting it right.
Top Image Credits: Gucci clothing, belt, and shoes, Jennifer Fisher earrings
Photographer: Emman Montalvan
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Hair: Brittney Ryan
Makeup: Aurora Bergere
Set Designer: Robert Ziemer
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Larkin Donley
Amil Niazi is a writer and producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Elle and Refinery29. She is also the showrunner of the weekly CBC pop culture podcast, Pop Chat.