At Replenish, Opting for New Designs Over Improving Old Ones

Launched in late 2010, Replenish is a company guided by Cradle to Cradle principles, has been actively working with MBDC for two years and is reinventing cleaning product packaging for the good of the planet.

James Ewell, director of consulting at MBDC, sat down with Jason Foster, founder of Replenish, to discuss how he went about innovating for a product category that has been slow to adopt more sustainable design practices.

James Ewell: Replenish is both a cleaning solution and a reusable bottling system. What makes Replenish environmentally positive?

Jason Foster: The biggest contributor to CO2 emissions [from bottled cleaning products] is the bulk and weight of shipping consumer products, which is mainly attributable to the water.

All those trucks going back and forth create a negative environmental imprint. In response to that problem, we looked at the source. Replenish believes in the idea of "Mix Local," which is to use water from local source at home to mix with cleaner instead of pre-mixing at a factory. While it sounds simple, the act reduces the amount of plastic, energy and CO2 emissions by 90 percent compared to pre-mixed cleaners. On top of that, the bottle system is made of 100 percent recyclable materials.

Ewell: Replenish takes a different route than most trying to create a more efficient bottle. Rather than improve on an existing design, you came up with something new. What made you decide to create a new system rather than using available bottling?

Foster: I truly believe that if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to throw out an old design and start with a completely new approach. We are big believers in Cradle to Cradle design that encourages us to stop trying to make a an old design less bad.

Instead, invent a new design where you don’t have the old tradeoffs. With those guiding principles in mind, we decided that rather than create another spray bottle with a limited useful life that still shipped the bulk and weight of water, we would focus on the functionality of the bottle itself, which opened up many more benefits than that old design ever could, no matter what new materials it was made of. That old bottle design is just very limited.

Ewell: You mention the influence of Cradle to Cradle, and you and I have worked together for some time. Can you describe the process of working with MBDC?

Foster: We started working with MBDC two years ago. We came in with a design and then began actively working with MBDC to put Cradle to Cradle design principles to work, not only in the bottle, but the cleaning solution as well. We feel Cradle to Cradle is the most rigorous benchmark in sustainability.

Ewell: What was the result of Replenish’s collaboration with MBDC?

Foster: MBDC screened all of the materials used in the product against 19 human and environmental toxicity endpoints and the formulation was designed to be non-toxic from the outset. In the end, the final cleaning solution for Replenish came to be 98 percent plant derived. As a consumer, I think that transparency is reassuring and refreshing.

Ewell: Clearly, you have come a long way from a concept to creating a standalone product and a system with potential application across the home cleaning space. What hurdles do you think remain between Replenish and widespread adoption?

Foster: I think we all need to reconnect with the past and how we used to design products.

There used to be a premium placed on craftsmanship and quality. Disposable products are a relatively new phenomenon. In the last 60 years, big companies have lead Americans to worship the idea that for products to be convenient, they should be disposable.

The result is we have to keep rebuying the same product, again and again — products that could be designed for continued reuse. It’s pretty insane if you think about it. The disposable culture we are living in and spreading throughout the world is unsustainable. We have to stop this irresponsible, disposable mindset and instead design great products that can be reused as well as recycled.

I really believe with proper forethought we can retain convenience while being more ecologically responsible.

Ewell: With the obstacles out of the way, what do you hope to accomplish as a company?

Foster: We are looking for nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we think about concentrates, reusable packaging and what that rethinking means for consumer products. We want to be the reusable platform that brings those benefits to consumers in an intelligent and ecologically sound way. We hope people never look at an old spray bottle the same way again.

MBDC is a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm founded in 1995 by architect William McDonough and chemist Dr. Michael Braungart. MBDC assists clients in implementing the Cradle to Cradle design framework. 

[Editor's note: A reference to Replenish being a "Cradle to Cradle company" has been removed; the company has not yet met the criteria for that designation.]