Method's Adam Lowry on the laundry industry's dirty little secret

SmartPlanet talks to one of Method's founders about sustainability, lessons learned, and what he's doing with 1,000 pounds of plastic he collected from the Pacific.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Method Products, the maker of eco-friendly and wonderfully designed household cleaners, will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in 2011. In the last decade, the company has revolutionized the home cleaning products industry--from hand washes that are sleek enough to keep on the counter (even in the hippest bathrooms) to a new, highly concentrated laundry detergent that comes in a slim pump bottle and puts giant detergent jugs to shame.

I recently spoke with Adam Lowry, who founded the company in 2001 with his one-time roommate, Eric Ryan. We talked about lessons he’s learned from Target and Whole Foods Market, why sustainability is a blue collar job, and the laundry industry’s dirty little secret.

Your title is chief greenskeeper. What does a greenskeeper do?

What it means is that I am responsible for making sure that everything we make and how we make it and how we talk about it is consistent with the green philosophy I used to start the company. I have oversight over product development and operations specifically from a sustainability perspective.

You used to be a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution. How did that prepare you for owning a green cleaning products company?

Like a lot of businesses, this one was started out of the frustrations of trying to do something.

I stared at Carnegie because I was passionate about environmental issues. But I learned a few things while I was there. The first was that science wasn’t really my calling. I’ve always been more interested in how to practically apply solutions.

It boiled down to two things. I became disenchanted at Carnegie because the scope of my work was only reaching other concerned scientists at that time. This was the mid-to late ‘90s, and I helped some scientists work on the Kyoto Protocol. We were writing articles in scientific journals, and the readers were scientists who were already concerned. I wanted to speak to everyone else in the world.

And the other thing is that as a green consumer at the time, every green product I could buy asked me to make a sacrifice in order to save the world. It smelled bad, was brown, looked awful. And I couldn’t think of one brand that was successful in that approach, asking consumers to make that kind of sacrifice.

So it was a combination of preaching to the converted and brands asking me to make a sacrifice.

So from there, explain how you developed your philosophy on sustainability.

Sustainability is just an aspect of product quality. The idea of green marketing and green branding is over.

We look at sustainability for what it really is—delivering products and services to people in a way that not only is not harmful but that is restorative to the systems that provide our resources. We look at sustainability across all aspects—from health to environmental stewardship. The reason the consumer buys Method might be for those reasons, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re trying to make the best home care and laundry products that money can buy. Period. And if you’re doing that in the 21st century, you better be doing it in the most sustainable way. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s important.

Where does the great design fit in?

The design is a key part of it. I often get asked the question, “Don’t you get upset that some people buy your product because it smells great or it matches their purple bathroom?” And I say, "No, that's the point." It’s almost as if those aesthetic elements act as a Trojan horse [for getting consumers to support a highly sustainable product].

Of all the areas in which you can focus on sustainability—product design, production, supply chain—which remains the most challenging?

The one I think is most challenging is most interesting. Packaging material and plant-based ingredients—that is stuff we do a ton of. It’s not that it’s easy, but it’s really core to us. The more challenging aspects are the upstream aspects of your supply chain, which are difficult to impact and sometimes difficult to understand what they are.

Take film packaging. How do you also make those things recyclable? In once case we made packaging for cleaning wipes out of a potato chip bag. We worked for a couple years with the raw materials and the film supplier to make a single layer polypropylene that was still able to keep moisture out.

Another example is palm oil. We try to stay away from palm oil feedstock, because palm oil from some suppliers comes from some plantations that are not responsible. Sometimes they cut down habitats for orangutans. But there’s not transparency, so we wouldn’t know what farm it came from. One of the biggest areas of challenges for us is getting full transparency in our supply chain—not just from our suppliers, but our suppliers’ suppliers.

While we don’t do a lot of work in the governmental spheres, it’s something we’ve been vocal in supporting: The producer’s right to know. Anytime I buy anything I have the right to know what’s in it. The fragrance industry, for example , is not forthcoming about what they put in their fragrances. Method has created a special confidentiality agreement with our suppliers, so we know what’s in there. That way, we can screen out materials we don’t want in our products.

You have a new plant-based laundry detergent that is eight times more concentrated. Why has it taken so long for manufacturers of laundry detergent to realize what a difference it makes to take the water out before shipping?

Because they don’t want to.

But aren’t you saving a ton of money not shipping all that liquid?

We are saving money. But consider the amount of money that’s wrapped up in people using too much of a heavy detergent.

We did a study that showed 53 percent--and that's conservative-- of Americans just use a full cap of laundry detergent. In the cap, there’s usually a 1, 2 and 3 line. That 3 line is usually between one-third and one-half of the volume of that cap. So if the 3 line is all you’d ever need, why is the cap so much bigger? That’s not accidental. I think that is the most well-known and best kept secret of the laundry industry.

There’s a $4 billion a year laundry industry. If half of Americans use twice what they need, then one-third of all laundry detergent is a waste. I often say the laundry jug is the SUV of the consumer products industry. You have huge amounts of money—hundreds of millions of dollars--tied up in people overusing their products. So it would mean giving up hundreds of millions of dollars of business.

But I believe if you design a product that aligns the consumer’s interest with the best interest of the environment, that ultimately those ideas will win.

Among the retailers you work with, which has taught you the most about sustainability, and what are the lessons you’ve learned?

Two: Whole foods and Target have taught us the most about sustainability for two entirely different reasons.

Whole Foods has a consumer that’s concerned about particular aspects of sustainability. Whole Foods is a very principled organization, and they are very fervent in those principles. It’s taught me about relating what’s important to your consumers back to your product. So being consumer-centric is something Whole Foods has helped us with.

Target is in a different channel of trade and is dong some pretty interesting stuff when it comes to sustainability. But the culture of Target is very different than Whole Foods, and I’ve learned that you’ve got to relate the things you get people excited about back to the core values that are important to that business. You have to create your own rallying cries. As I’ve worked with Target over the last five to 10 years, working on our sustainability focused brand, that’s one lesson I’ve learned—you have to make it relevant to what is motivating to people in the organization.

In the last several years, I’ve worked with Target far beyond the commercial relationship as a vendor. I’ve worked with their sustainability teams. They have actually created a mission statement around sustainability that relates to Target’s core value. Their sustainability strategy is built around the core values, and that’s getting deployed around recycling, merchandising, which designers they work with. So the overarching framework that they’ve created is very effective with their values. They invited in a who’s who of the sustainability community to collaborate. I was lucky enough to be involved in that process.

What do you do personally to keep up with all the clean tech news and products?

It’s a combination. I have my media sources I try to monitor, and I try to connect with people individually. It’s a relatively small community of people working on these issues. I try to have individual phone conversations and have coffee with people. I find my ideas aren’t complete on their own [without the input of] other people.

There’s an informal advisory board of people I work with who are constantly exploring. Part of my cabinet are people who are more hooked into chemical technology and material technology. Our business is not particularly energy intensive. It’s more material intensive.

For example, some of the people I work with are people who are working a lot on the problem of plastic on our oceans. I’ve been working with our recycler that makes the resin for our laundry bottles. I’ve gathered about 1,000 pounds of plastic from the Pacific Ocean--washed up on beaches in Hawaii or on the West Coast. And we’ve been talking about recycling this. It’s a little bit of a kooky idea, but it helps raise awareness on moving away from one-time use packaging. And one of the ways we can do that is coming up with a story on recycling from trash we collected from the oceans.

All this is kind of a hard process to describe, but you’re constantly trying to scour the landscape for things that are interesting and find things that are effective for our business. Sustainability is a blue collar job. You can’t really do it unless you roll your sleeves up.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards