“It’s amusing to me that you are studying Sustainability now in the US because here in Belgium we’ve been working on it for 30 years”
So we were introduced to the Ecover way by Concept Manager Peter Malaise at the beginning of a tour of the Ecover factory in Malle, Belgium. Malaise easily rivals the eco-rockstars we look to in the US for best in class sustainable manufacturing. Think of him as Ray Anderson with a handlebar mustache and a brain full of Chemistry, Philosophy, and Flemish. He knows his stuff and he was eager to show the 3P team how he’d integrated sustainably business practices into every decision he’d made for the company in his 15 years on the team. We spent over 4 hours with him learning about the Ecover process and the history of the company:
Supply Chain: Ecover products are produced onsite and we breathed easily as we toured the facility since all the product inputs pass extensive toxic screening. If it doesn’t kill algae, it won’t kill you. It smelled great in there! The company has utilized supply chain management over the years to encourage its suppliers to utilize more environmentally friendly practices in their own manufacturing. Any Ecover supplier must agree to comply with a 17 page stakeholder engagement contract before getting business with Ecover. Further, the manufactuing process is externally audited under ISO 14001.
One particularly impressive success story is that of the company that supplies Ecover with empty bottles. These bottles are delivered to the factory in cardboard boxes. Ecover started to send back empty boxes back for re-use, and finally the supplier began providing box designed for re-use. That company now sends out all their products to all their buyers in these boxes and requires them to be returned for reuse– saving everyone time and money.
Worker Health: Ecover runs an early shift and an afternoon shift, but tries its hardest to avoid the night shift because it’s bad for employees’ long term health. They also utilize wooden flooring because it’s easier on employee’s bodies. 100% of the local staff bike to work, which the PR manager was quick to point out wasn’t quite as good as it sounded, because most of them lived nearby. It was clear that Ecover valued truth and honest representation of their process above all. Ecover employees all receive €0.50 for each km of carbon free commuting.
Packaging: Malaise has spent many an hour considering the packaging that Ecover products are delivered in. Everything from the size, shape, and content of the containers is up for grabs. The current product mix includes some small bottles for individual purchase, and some industrial size packaging which allows consumers to fill their own bottles in the store. The individual bottles of product are made of polyethylene, which is readily recyclable in the areas where Ecover does business. The bottles don’t currently contain recycled content because this increases the weight and therefore the cost of production, but if one thing was clear, it was that Ecover is always on the lookout for opportunities to improve it’s sustainability profile.
Waste Not Want Not: The lifecycle of the products is a daily consideration for the development team– products need to function as well, if not better, than their conventional competitors, but they need to contain chemicals that are easy on the body and biodegradable too.
Ecover takes it’s cradle to cradle approach extremely seriously, testing all the raw materials that come into the factory from suppliers to make sure that they comply with Ecover specs, as well as putting them through comprehensive toxicity tests. On the other end of the lifecycle, Ecover utilizes an onsite water treatment plant to manage everything from toilet water to water waste from the manufacturing process. Malaise told us that the wastewater treatment facility saved the company money because they didn’t have to pay the city, but he really set it up just to prove to other manufacturers that it could be done.
Since Ecover recycles and reuses everything it can, they are proud to report that they create an impressively minimal 2g of was for every kg of product that leaves the factory.
Energy: While Malaise chuckled at the environmentalists obsession with carbon, he noted that the factory is daylit, has a green roof which eliminates the need for a/c and central heat, and uses a clean energy mix available from renewable sources, and that they have already met EU carbon targets for 2012.
We ended our tour with lunch with Managing Director Mick Bremans, who was named on of Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2008, and it was clear that the company is committed to transparency in more than just it’s supply chain. Mick is now keeping a blog!