A fascinating read and raises, for me, far more issues of interest than I could have imagined.
Ever since Ecover released its first phosphate-free products over three decades ago, the company has been at the forefront of pursuing solutions to our cleaning needs that don’t pollute waterways or place ecosystems under strain. To succeed, the company must not only innovate in their own goods but also to establish a competitive market for sustainable products.
For Dirk Develter, Head of Research and Development at Ecover, this means that engaging and educating consumers is just as important as the rigorous process of product improvement. But how do you do both at once? Develter describes Ecover’s approach: it’s a constant back-and-forth between the company’s ambitions, the consumers’ expectations, partners and collaborators in the industry, and the best available technology in the lab. The goal is always to meet their customers’ expectations of quality products with minimal environmental impacts, but there’s a constant iteration and reiteration of the way there. For Develter, this is inspired by the endless nature of evolution: if you remain open to the possibility of new directions which offer real benefits, you’re more likely to survive. It’s not just about finding substitutes that offer incremental improvements in an established framework; it’s about experimenting with the best available technology, in whatever guise it comes.
Take surfactants, for example. Traditionally, these have been made using oil from petroleum, or tropically sourced palm oils, which come with a significant transport-related carbon footprint as well as issues of deforestation. In 2009, Ecover established oilseed rape as a viable alternative, one whose ability to be grown globally vastly reduces the need for transportation – but it is now working towards an even better solution, producing oils from micro organisms such as algae or bacteria. These can not only be grown locally but avoid competition for the same land space as food crops. This development is already entering the product lines, with soaps made by these algae; additional surfactants are in the pipeline.
In the R&D lab, Ecover also turns to nature for inspiration, seeking to recreate the kinds of efficient biological reactions which rarely require high temperatures, hazardous chemicals or fundamentally unsustainable processes. One interesting angle the company is pursuing involves the use of probiotic cleaners. These products would actually contain live micro-organisms as the active ingredient – ones which are extremely proactive in the presence of stains or dirt, but completely benign otherwise.
This is where education becomes a crucial part of the innovation process. If you want to get cleaning products containing live bacteria into people’s homes, you first have to overcome the mental hurdles established over many years of adverts claiming a product ‘kills 99.9% of all bacteria’, without ever stopping to ask whether those bacteria could work in our favour. Develter realises this is calling for a big shift in what ‘clean’ means to people: “We would prefer to have a more symbiotic approach, in which we favour good bacteria and good microorganisms, rather than having to kill off everything that lives.”
The difference the company is trying to make spans public education and market-shaping goals. Past campaigns have aimed to shift behaviour on waste, and remind consumers that what they discard can come back – in their tap water, for instance. One current topic on Ecover’s educational agenda is in the correct usage of their products: how to avoid too large a dose. Even with an environmentally friendly cleaner, using too much is wasteful – or as Develter puts it: “Just because you are using a green product, it does not mean you are doing a green thing. The way that you use the product is just as important.”
Ecover is also working on a ‘water-less’ range, destined for release next year. The aim is to counter the general market trend from powdered to liquid-based laundry products – a transition which, while popular, demands larger volumes of packaging, which is often less recyclable due to the need to be water-tight, and a weightier product to transport, per number of washes. Liquid format also makes it easier for the end-user to accidentally waste the product, Develter believes. By contrast, Ecover’s water-less products will be lighter to transport and require significantly less packaging.
It’s an innovation that links neatly to the company’s interest in the efficiency of nature: why carry water if you can access it on demand? But to get such a product out of the lab and into people’s lives, the end users have to see the benefits too. By adding an ‘E’ for education to its R&D process, Ecover hopes to open minds to new meanings for ‘clean’. – Ian Randall