[Editor's Note: This article is the latest in Anna Clark's series of profiles of eco-leaders; to read the full series, visit GreenBiz.com/EcoLeadership.]
Deirdre Imus, bestselling author and president of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center, turned her line of green cleaning products into a complete system for eliminating toxins from buildings. Now in use in hospitals, schools, and businesses across the U.S., Greening the Cleaning is poised to enter the global marketplace. As an ecopreneur, I wanted to know how she did it. Here's what she told me in our recent interview:
Anna Clark: Deirdre, how did you go about turning the kernel of an idea for a line of green cleaning products into a comprehensive system for helping hospitals go green?
Deirdre Imus: It started with a single idea and a lot of curiosity. The Greening the Cleaning program is a direct extension of the work and research we did to make our ranch for children recovering from cancer as green as possible.
AC: Can you explain how your work with cancer patients led you to focus on sustainability?
DI: During his decades on the air, my husband developed a heart for children battling cancer after becoming involved with Tomorrows Children's Fund. After Don and I married in 1994, we started working with sick children together. We noticed a common theme: these kids were like normal kids in every way except they had lost their self-esteem. During recovery and afterward, they were reluctant to participate in sports and other activities. Neither conventional care nor alternative medicine was working to restore the self-esteem or dignity of young cancer patients.
With Don's background as a cattle rancher's son, he knew intuitively that the cowboy work ethic would be the perfect antidote to help restore these kids' health and self-confidence. So we started raising money to build a ranch for kids. Out of the decade-long process of creating a completely toxin-free setting for these kids came the understanding that organic cleaning agents are critical to the health of any environment.
AC: Why are toxin-free cleaning products critical to safeguarding our health?
DI: Cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease in children. And cancer isn't the only epidemic. One in six kids is obese. One of six kids has asthma. One in eight children is born premature. One out of 60 boys is diagnosed with autism. We've seen rapid growth in Tourette syndrome and diabetes. Another chronic disease growing among children is arthritis.
Success is a System, Not a Secret
|After interviewing Deirdre and reading several of her books, I can see that her success is not the result of luck or having a famous husband. True to her roots as a marathon runner, Deirdre applies deliberateness and dedication to every facet of her work. From development to distribution, this not-for-profit line is all business. Try using her strategy to turn your own green dream into a reality:
1) Follow your passion and your personal interest. Deirdre's been a vegan for 25 years. The sincerity of her story gives her credibility, which helps her sell others on the health benefits of toxin-free products.
2) Narrow your focus to a specific solution that addresses a fundamental problem. By taking a holistic look at the issues affecting children's health, Deirdre was able to zero in on toxic cleaning agents as the culprit. Identifying a need for a workable system for hospitals, she tailor-made a program to fill this need, ensuring that it was relevant and credible enough for her target market.
3) Enroll a pilot project. Deirdre's pilot project with Hackensack was pivotal for her organization. Doing this will provide you with testimonials and a case study for marketing purposes, not to mention invaluable feedback for improvement.
4) Add an educational component to whatever you are selling. Deirdre told me, "I think the key to ours is we offer an educational program." When you are up against a competitor with a more established brand, a great way to differentiate yourself is to offer a higher level of customer services in the form of stakeholder education or consulting. Customers appreciate the value-add, and it lends even more credibility to your brand.
5) Get creative with your distribution channels. The Environment Center's director, Don O'Hagan, has been very strategic in sourcing distribution partners. Keeping up with environmentally-friendly state legislation has helped him target new distribution opportunities, such as ones resulting from New York Education Law Section 409-I (procurement and use of environmentally sensitive cleaning and maintenance products). He shares these tips, "Look for eco-friendly states. New York, for example, is our largest customer. We are listed under the Office of Government Services "Preferred Source" program. Through New York State Industries for the Blind out of Albany, under State Finance Law 162, state entities are required to buy products through the disabled and blind organizations. Our lead partner, the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI) in Ithaca, New York, publishes a catalog containing 152 products. Nineteen of these are Greening the Cleaning products. Non-profits like these make excellent distribution partners." Don has established a distribution model that he can replicate in many other states, and eventually around the globe.
6) You will go far by focusing on solving problems right in front of you. Deirdre closed our interview with a story. "Mother Theresa was standing in the streets of Calcutta and a journalist looked around at all the lepers. He asked her where she could possibly begin to address the problem. 'I am going to help the leper in front of me,' replied Mother Theresa." Deirdre finishes, "So that is what we do every day. We help the kid right in front of us."
These statistics are hard facts. Why is this generation of children sicker than other children? Many factors that contribute to this startling increase are environmental. That is the reality. So with the ranch I began to focus on one area where I could make a significant impact: food. Our food chain has been destroyed. This is the root of where all my work in the green arena blossomed.
I've been a vegan for 25 years. Back in high school as a runner, I discovered I could perform better and feel better with a vegetable and plant-based diet. So I've been living this way for several decades. That is how it was so natural to weave it into the business.
Our ranch in New Mexico is completely non-toxic. Ours is the only working cattle ranch in America that we know of to be organic and vegan. We built 17 state-of-the-art green buildings. We have around 5,000 acres with a working farm of horses, chickens, donkeys, sheep, and cattle. We don't spray any pesticides. In fact, we're working on applying for biodynamic certification.
AC: When did you decide to apply this to the world outside your ranch?
DI: Around 2000, I wondered if hospitals were true places of healing. I started to do my research and found that hospitals were using products with toxic ingredients, all in the name of cleaning. My idea started with a question: are hospitals, which are supposed to be places of healing, really able to do that by using these products? How can people heal in a toxic environment?
AC: How did you execute your vision?
DI: I approached Hackensack University Medical Center to do a pilot program. In 2000, the word green wasn't even on the map, so I didn't expect it to be an easy sell. I walked into the CEO John Ferguson's office with a stack of research. He stopped me in my tracks and told me to go do it. That is literally how I got started 'greening the cleaning.'
Aligning with John Ferguson taught me how critical it is to find a hero inside the organization. The key is to find a person that can see your vision and get them to help you. It doesn't have to be the CEO, but it does help. So you've got to find that one hero.
AC: So this pilot program was instrumental to your success?
DI: Absolutely. From there we had a story to tell. Hospitals are held to the strictest standards for cleanliness. For us, green had to be the cleanest possible but without losing its efficacy. I talked to scientists and epidemiologists and connected with people that manufacture products. It was a lot of work, but ultimately we found the right people by talking to the doctors who had the best information. In spring of 2001, I found a manufacturer and got the product line into the hospital.
What better example in society if you can do it in a hospital setting, which has all sorts of codes and standards to comply with? We successfully did that and we got recognized. I was surprised because the state and the governor called with these awards. The beauty of this is that it proved that it worked even better, we saved them money and it's completely non-toxic. The fourth benefit is that we set it up as a non-profit. So we offer a superior system with the benefits of saving money and supporting the mission of our center. It's a winning combination for any company. It all came out of that first project.
AC: Your Greening the Cleaning line is being used in hospitals, schools, businesses and corporations throughout the country and in some offshore hospitals. What methods of distribution are you relying on?
DI: We have gotten very creative with our distribution channels. We recently announced an important alignment with a firm that has the logistics experience and scale to make our entire order-to-fulfillment process leaner and far more efficient. The Central Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CABVI) has been distributing our Greening the Cleaning products through the NY State contract program for over 2 years, and they excel in all areas of supply chain management. Their highly skilled team makes sure that orders are completed safely, efficiently and on time. This is a win-win-win for customers, CABVI and for children. Customers get a dedicated order fulfillment and customer service operation. CABVI gets a steady volume of meaningful work that benefits the blind and visually impaired, while we get greater focus on our mission.
AC: How can someone become a distributor?
DI: Interested distributors can get information at www.DIenviro.com or call and speak to Jim Ronchi or Don O'Hagan.
AC: What advice can you give readers searching for an entry point into the green marketplace? So many people want to make a difference but still don't know what their niche should be.
DI: Pick a field you are completely passionate about and find opportunities within that. There are so many problems everywhere that need to be addressed. If you aren't prepared to make something up yourself, you can align with one of our programs or help bring momentum to any other programs out there.
For example, consider the health care industry. There are so many directions you can go. You can join the Mercury Elimination program through Sustainable Hospitals. We are connected globally with Health Care Without Harm. For nursing, we are helping green doctors, green pediatrics, green chemists, and so on. I've educated schools of nurses to help them change.
Or if you want to be a chef, look for new applications for organic cuisine. Restaurants aren't the only employers. Hospitals need all organic plant-based foods. In our hospital, we created with the chef a gourmet menu. We've got organic choices, whole grain pastas, kosher, and vegan options. It can be more expensive but we're working with local co-ops and farmers. If you're a farmer you've got to go organic. If you're a schoolteacher, you can create a sustainable garden. Be creative. Initiate it. That is what we've done. We've created a new model within a hospital structure. This never existed before. Many green ideas will have to be like that because they are so innovative.
AC: Most people feel too overwhelmed to make meaningful green changes in their own lives, let alone in the lives of others. What words of encouragement do you have for someone who thinks change is impossible?
DI: There are no small changes. There are single fundamental changes one step at a time. When you green your cleaning products, you are keeping millions of gallons of water from being polluted. That is a huge environmental improvement that can be made through a single change. There are hundreds of others. I focus on what I can control today, making healthier decisions wherever possible. The seeds of change start with us. Say someone is starting from scratch. I don't care if you are a mom at home or a CEO in a company. Change begins one step at a time. When I started, I did one thing at a time and before I knew it, I had ten things done. That's how you make change happen.
AC: Did you think you would be this successful when you got started?
DI: I never thought this would happen. I worked instinctively. I started with food because of personal interest. Through food I learned about all the toxins in our environment. Every idea triggered another one. I never imagined that I'd be here. For anyone who thinks they can't do it, I'm living proof that you can make a difference. My best advice is to just be the example. Our actions are the loudest voice we could possibly have.
Anna Clark is president of EarthPeople, a full-service consulting firm that helps companies of all sizes create and execute green strategies to save money and bolster their brands.
Hospital photo CC-licensed by Flickr user yosoyjulito.