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The ecological cleaning products brand is finding out what a distributed model really means.
You’re an international company in an otherwise heavily centralised sector, and you want to ‘go local’. First things first: what does a distributed business model even look like – in terms of manufacturing, sales and branding? That’s the question the ecological cleaning products brand Ecover is boldly trying to answer – a frontier few businesses have broached.
To find out, Ecover has launched Glocal, a pilot project in partnership with Forum for the Future to explore producing cleaning products using local materials and local manufacturing methods. Find a commercially viable way of doing so, and the Glocal team will have developed a new business model for the bio-economy. According to Tom Domen, Long Term Innovation Manager at Ecover, this pioneering work has significant potential: “Glocal is helping us envision a model in which Ecover goes beyond producing and distributing globally to become a knowledge centre and a catalyst for local production and local businesses.”
Ecover is running a pilot project in Mallorca, the geography of which – a manageable size, clearly defined boundaries, part of the EU – makes it a perfect testing ground to explore potential scenarios. The team has mapped all the available sources of biological materials – or biosources – particularly focusing on waste streams, to work out viable ingredients for the three selected pilot products. Ecover is investigating the opportunities presented by satellite data to map biosources globally in the future. In Mallorca, the team is experimenting with turning the selected materials into products such as peroxide bleach – a natural bleach unlike toxic, commonly used chlorine bleach – and soap, with guidance from Mallorcan locals, including a peroxide bleach expert.
In parallel, Ecover has been investigating local packaging and distribution options. The ideal scenario is that the packaging is made locally to the high standards set by Ecover. In spring 2011, the company implemented the use of PolyEthylene, a green plastic made from sugarcane affectionately known as Plantastic that is 100% renewable, reusable and recyclable. Taking this to a local level, however, is not simple: diverse waste collection models, reclamation systems and reuse cultures are just some of the complications. Not a company to fall at the first hurdle however, Ecover is committed to working through issues like this. And solutions are beginning to emerge. For example, a shop in Mallorca sells detergents out of big barrels from which customers re-fill their own bottles – and can even add different fragrances to the mix. A closed-loop system isn’t impossible to envision in the longer term.
So what have they learnt? Most importantly, says Domen, the need for ongoing experimentation in order to understand specific local conditions. A neat illustration of this is the commercial viability of any new cleaning products in Mallorca, an economy underpinned by tourism. The odd visitor may be happy to buy an expensive soap, but for hotels – which constitute most of the market – price is key: any local product must compete on price with cheap imports.
The opportunities presented by a Glocal business model go beyond supporting local economies. Current production of cleaning products depends on a diverse and complex value chain, exposing the manufacturer to resource scarcity and uncertainty. By turning to local areas, mapping their resources, making use of ‘waste’ products and putting an idiosyncratically local stamp on the final product, there are opportunities to strengthen Ecover’s resilience as a business.
The rise of distributed manufacturing technologies makes such a vision possible. According to Anna Warrington, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, exploring new, sustainable ways of manufacturing is critical across the business spectrum: “Given the challenges we face, civil society and investors are looking for companies to deliver something revolutionary rather than just evolutionary. Once we have captured the learning from Ecover’s pilot project and established a long-term vision, we can start to work out how this might be scaled up elsewhere.”
A fundamental question is branding, which Effi Vandevoorde, Corporate and Legal Affairs Manager at Ecover, believes is key to ensuring an ethical company such as Ecover lives up to its market expectations: “There has been lots of innovation in waste and packaging in recent years but it’s the stuff inside the bottle that’s key. We want to create a product working in partnership with the local areas where it will be used – not at their expense. Is it an Ecover product or a Mallorca product? It’s both. That way we live the values of our brand.” – Tess Riley
Ecover is a Forum for the Future Partner.
Photo credit: Digital Vision/Thinkstock