The Revolution in the Laundry Room

I've joined the laundry-detergent revolution. Well, revolution may be stretching it -- but changes unfolding (sorry!) in laundry rooms across America show how innovation can move us closer to a sustainable economy.

The revolution metaphor is useful because it's a reminder that real innovation is more likely to be driven by upstarts, insurgents and rebels -- like Method, one of my favorite companies -- than by powerful incumbents who want to preserve the status quo.

Take a look:

Over the last several years, big, wasteful jugs of laundry detergent like this one from Procter & Gamble's Tide have all but disappeared from grocery store shelves. These jugs were good for marketing people who plastered messages on the package but they weren't good for anyone else.Tide

Today, the new normal is concentrated 2x (meaning half the liquid in every load) detergents like Unilever's Small and Mighty All, which use less packaging and water, saving money on shipping costs and waste. Tide sells lots of 2x as well.. The 2x packages are convenient, easy to store and pour. all+small+mighty

But the greenest, smartest and most innovative detergent is an 8x concentrate from Method, which uses less water in a smaller package and should save consumers money. This is good for everyone except news P&G or Unilever, which have profited from the overdosing of laundry, as we'll explain. 

Method is a privately-held company that was started in 2000 by Adam Lowry, a former climate scientist, and his friend Eric Ryan in their San Francisco bachelor pad. It has grown into a company with more than $100 million in revenues, and an impact bigger than its size. Method introduced the first concentrated laundry detergent -- a 3x concentrate -- to the mass market back in 2004 through Target. A year or so later, amidst much fanfare, Unilever and Wal-Mart followed with a 2x Small and Mighty All. By most accounts P&G, the king of the detergent shelf with such brands as Tide, Gain and Era, came along later, under pressure from Wal-Mart.

new-method-laundry-detergent1-538x1024Adam, who is 35, spoke about Method, innovation and green marketing earlier this month at FORTUNE's Brainstorm Green conference. We caught up the other day by phone to talk about how and why Method has become a sustainability leader.

There's a tension, Adam argues, between size and innovation. "When you think about companies that dominate our economy, these are not organizations that welcome change and they are not usually nimble organizations," he says. "The general model, for big companies, is to design something, build a patent fortress around it, and then extract as much profit as you can until the product runs its course."

"Market leaders thrive when markets are static," he adds.

Pushing towards sustainable models requires just the opposite -- persistent innovation. "We need to be willing to take what makes us money today and throw it out the window and replace it with something that's better, greener and a lot less certain," he says.

This restless desire to improve led to the path-breaking 8x product, which packs enough detergent to do 50 loads of wash into a 20 fluid oz bottle that sells for $15 at Method's website, at Amazon or at major retailers including Costco, Target and Wal-Mart. There's a $2 off coupon, as I write this, at the Method site.)