If you’ve followed our occasional series of sustainablog Approved posts, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve tended to focus on smaller, upcoming companies. I’m a sucker for a creative entrepreneur, so that makes sense… but, of course, small, new companies aren’t the only ones taking innovative steps to combine business and sustainability. If you pay attention to the green business space at all, you can probably easily name several larger, well-established companies that have made environmental commitment a part of their business plan.
It’s possible that Ecover isn’t one of the companies you think of immediately, even though they’ve been in business now for thirty years. Based in Belgium, this ecological cleaning products company grew from one man’s idea for creating laundry and dishwasher detergents free of phosphates into a multinational success story… but they’re still better known in Europe at this point.
That’s changing, as Ecover has received some high marks on this side of the Atlantic for product quality — Consumer Reports, for instance, rated their dishwasher tablets as one of the top three low-phosphate detergents on the market. They’re also doing more active brand-building in the US, such as the Thirty under 30 contest.
Can they give more established US brands like Seventh Generation* a run for their money? We’ll see. They’ve definitely got a wealth of experience behind them in terms of manufacturing products, and doing business, in a more sustainable manner.
On October 5th, I had the chance to find out more about the company through a discussion with Michale “Mick” Bremans, who’s served as Ecover’s CEO since 1992. Like other interviewers, I was impressed with Bremans’ honesty about his products, and his clear sense that sustainability is path that his company is on, rather than a destination that it’s reached. Still, they’ve made some impressive strides… and I enjoyed hearing more about them.
The sustainablog Approved Interview: Mick Bremans of Green Cleaning Products Company Ecover
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg: Ecover was founded to create phosphate-free laundry and dishwashing detergents; thirty years later, we’re finally starting to see bans on phosphates in the US and around the world. What’s the next issue surrounding the environmental and health impacts of traditional cleaning products that needs this kind of attention?
Mick Bremans: Well, if I look back on what happened in our company over the years, we started off with making phosphate-free products. Over the years, the products themselves, and principles we apply to our products, have evolved and grown enormously. So, as the company grew, we got a much better insight into the real environmental issues surrounding cleaning products, and, eventually, health issues, also. So, we’ve tried to integrate principles of sustainable development into the way we develop our products.
There are several issues that we consider important. First, we try to avoid the use of petrochemicals overall. That’s not just because they’re petrochemicals, but because, in general, using them is unsustainable: they’re going to be depleted eventually. We’d replace them today with vegetable-based ingredients if we could (which also undergo a transformation process: we can’t say that these ingredients grow on trees and than go directly into our products), but, overall, aim to use as much renewable material, either plant-based or mineral-based, as possible.
We realize that there are ingredients derived from petrochemicals that are biodegradable, or have other characteristics which are not necessarily bad for the environment; however, we think that, from a sustainable point of view, we need to move towards renewable materials in order to allow present and future generations to fulfill their needs, and to influence those future generations to do the same. We feel like this is one element of the resources that go into cleaning products which we’ve been able to address in our offerings to the market.
Next, we have to consider the impact of the actual products themselves on the environment. We have developed a model with thirteen axes that we consider important for the development of new cleaning products, or in upgrading an existing product into a more ecological one. These axes are divided into three phases. First, there’s the resource phase, which I’ve already discussed. Then you have the use phase, where the consumer is actually using your product. There, you need to look not only at the composition of the product, but also at the way it’s being used, the energy consumption of its use, and the potential effects on the health of the user.
The third phase is the absorption phase, and that’s where we have to consider what happens when the product ends up either in the environment or in the waste stream. There we look at issues of primary bidegradability, full biodegradability, and what will happen in anaerobic circumstances, where there is no oxygen present? We look at the overall toxicity of the product; we look at the packaging; we look at the absence of compounds like phosphates and limitations on compounds like VOCs. So, these thirteen concepts guide us in making our products evolve into more ecological products.
JM-S: So it sounds like you take a full lifecycle approach to developing products?
MB: It is a full lifecycle approach of the products. And, of course, this is something that’s developed over years: no company can say “Let’s do this tomorrow!” It’s evolved over the years, and will continue to evolve in the future: in my view, sustainable development is not a moment in time. We as a company can not say “We are sustainable.” It’s a process in which you engage that includes continuous improvement of your products, continuous improvement of their environmental impact, and continuous improvement of the work you do.
JM-S: Your press materials also mention sustainable ingredient sourcing. What exactly does that mean in terms of the “plant and mineral based ingredients” in your products? Are plant materials organically farmed, for instance (and is that relevant)? If not, what kinds of sustainable processes go into their cultivation and harvesting? With minerals, what kinds of extraction processes are used?
MB: We source our base materials from, what I would think, are generally traditional sources, in the sense that many of the vegetable-based ingredients that we work with are plant-based oils or fatty acid ingredients: things like palm oil. That is the main natural source for surfactants in the market right now. We are trying to move away from some of these materials, and moving towards those that can, for instance, be made from starch.: corn or potatoes, for example. These items can be sourced much closer to our factories, of course, as opposed to the oils, which usually come from Asia. And, we know that ingredients like palm oil have their own problems: the impact on rain forests, for instance. Now, we buy our palm oil from certified plantations, but I’ve been there, and I know that this isn’t a guarantee that we’re purchasing a fully sustainable product. So, we’re not there yet.
On the other hand, we don’t use organic ingredients for a number of reasons. First, there’s just simply not enough supply to fulfill our demands. At the same time, we have an ethical dilemma there: we know that there are thousands of people dying each day from starvation on our planet. So, I wonder if we should use ingredients of organic quality to wash our socks when those materials could be food ingredients. I really have an ethical problem with that. Of course we’re in favor of organic agriculture, and would love to make all of our products organic, but we also don’t want to increase demand, and therefore prices, of food.
JM-S: You various statements about mission also take note of social issues surrounding the sourcing, production, and distribution of your products. What are some of the social impacts of cleaning products that Ecover has worked to lighten or eliminate?
MB: Well, I don’t overestimate the impact of any our sourcing, or our products, or anything that we do on these issues. And I don’t think there’s anything at the level of, say, child labor, with which we deal. At the same time, we do pay attention to the social circumstances under which our raw materials are made and processed. We do that by screening our suppliers; in fact, every year, we screen our 100 most important suppliers on a continuous basis. On the one hand, we may send a questionnaire out to them asking about their behavior; on the other, we constantly follow the media to see if stories arise claiming a social or environmental problem. At this point, we’ll question the supplier, and then deliberate internally to decide if we’ve received a satisfactory answer. And, we will stop working with a supplier if we believe they’re not working to our standards and expectations.
In the factory itself, we have quite an open culture, and we encourage our employees to learn more, and to participate in the environmental journey that we’re on.
JM-S: The company’s “Heritage” statement notes sustainable management is a part of the Ecover’s larger “sustainability proposition.” How does does sustainability figure into areas of the company not directly involved in product manufacturing, such as HR management, marketing, and day-to-day operations?
MB: We have an ISO 14001-certified environmental management system in place at our sites in both Belgium and France, and rather than employing it just on the operations side (its traditional function), we use it for all of our activities. So, for instance, our accounting department needs to work on identifying environmental objectives for themselves. And that’s not necessarily easy for them. Sure, they can say “We’re going to use less paper,” but they can also look at the processes they have, and try to simplify them, or implement electronic document processing, etc. All of these are small things, but we apply them across our organization… and by focusing this way consistently, environmental considerations become reflexive. So, our marketing department considers the impact of all of its activities. In HR, for instance, we’ve reversed the typical compensation scheme in which you end up paying employees who come to work by car more than one who comes by an alternative: we work to pay those who come by bicycle, or public transportation, or carpooling more than those who drive their cars. We also try to stimulate our people to think about these issues as much as possible.
JM-S: Your website mentions your “ecological factories” a number of times: one built in 1992, and another in 2007. What makes these factories “ecological?” Is that different from “green?”
MB: Well, “green” is a little too simple, I think. Ecological, for us, means that when we decided to construct these factories, we actually thought about the ecological impact of them. It’s the same for both products and factories: we use the word “ecological” to demonstrate that we’ve considered the full environmental impact of the work we do. The reason that we did that is actually quite simple: we’re asking consumers to buy an ecological (or a “green”) product, and we know that sometimes they have to go to some effort to do that. If a customer’s going to make extra effort to buy that kind of product, then we believe that they expect us to also take extra effort in how we operate our company. In terms of constructing our factories, this means going as far as we possible can to minimize the impact of them on the environment. That’s why, for instance, the factory in Belgium in constructed almost entirely our of recycled or renewable materials. Overall, we feel that if we expect a consumer to take the extra effort to purchase our product, they should expect that same extra effort from us.
I’m grateful to Mick for taking the time to talk to me, and impressed with the work he and the company are doing. Are you a fan of Ecover products? Let us know about your experience with them.
Image credits: Ecover
*Link to a page in sustainablog’s Green Choices product comparison engine