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Inside look: Method brings green manufacturing to Chicago

Take a tour of the sustainable cleaning product company's first U.S. plant, complete with state-of-the-art production lines, on-site renewable energy and a rooftop farm.

It might make for good headlines now, but Adam Lowry didn’t set out to earn a LEED Platinum designation for Method Home’s first U.S. manufacturing plant. His team just wanted to build something relevant that lived up to the company’s ideals.

“I didn’t want to design for a standard. I wanted to design for the most ecologically and social beneficial building I could design,” Method’s co-creator and chief greenskeeper said, chatting over hot cocoa on a raw spring afternoon in New York. “I figured if I did this, we could probably certify it as one of those things."

As it turns out, some of the most innovative features at the Chicago factory, nicknamed the South Side Soapbox, actually counted against its LEED rating with U.S. Green Business Council.

The most controversial element: the rooftop urban farm run by Gotham Greens. While water conservation weighs heavily on Lowry’s mind, his team opted to supplement more common practices such as recycling and efficiency measures through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Right now, there’s no way to earn LEED credit for that initiative.

But the project picked up enough points in other areas, especially for its statement-making site in urban Chicago, to earn an elite designation that is especially rare among resource-intensive manufacturing plants. What’s more, Lowry is eager to share his secrets, so others can do better than his team.

From start to finish, construction of the 150,000-square-foot facility on 23 acres in Chicago’s south side took 363 days. It was inspired by the personal care company's desire to get products to market faster and was made more feasible by the company's acquisition more than two years ago by a similar Belgian company, Ecover. 

“I look at this factory in the arc of sustainable design. What I’ve done my very best to do is try to be as state of the art, cutting-edge sustainable design as we can,” Lowry said. “We borrowed a lot from ideas of people that came before us, and I hope that people go further than we were able to go in this facility. That’s one of the big reasons that we built the facility so that people could easily come through and check it out. The story we’re going to tell is just how we run our business.”

From brownfield to urban park

When Lowry first envisioned the Chicago plant two years ago, he knew he wanted it to be an urban one — one that could stimulate an existing local economy, rather than encourage employees to drive miles out into suburbia.

The Detroit-raised entrepreneur prioritized the Midwest, rather than a site near Method’s San Francisco headquarters. The reasoning was pretty simple: Water is more plentiful and distribution hubs are well established.

Lowry and the individuals assigned to the project (ultimately, there were four others) hired an outside expert, Cushman & Wakefield, to define site selection criteria and reach out to target cities. Then things got interesting.

Several cities ignored the urban mandate and offered land for free far outside city limits. Others proposed sites that weren’t suitable for the plant’s footprint.

Chicago quickly established itself as a frontrunner: Of the three finalist locations, two were located there. One, a lakeside property that’s part of a sustainable development zone. The other, an abandoned factory site 12 miles outside the Chicago loop in the historic neighborhood surrounding the former Pullman railroad car factory.

“One of the reasons we chose Pullman was the community. It was literally the people,” Lowry said, pointing to the manufacturing skills already present in the local workforce.

This was not a trivial decision, because of the brownfield status of the land, which was scattered by bits of concrete and steel from the previous occupants. Remediation costs ate up one-third of the capital investment, Lowry said.

He won’t detail the total price tag, saying only that the plant cost “tens of millions” of dollars to construct. Between Method and two other businesses that located onsite, the greenhouse operator and its bottling partner, the facility will employ about 100 people.

Roughly 3.5 acres of the 22-acre site are used for industrial purposes, and the rest has been converted into a natural habitat for wildlife. Even before spring arrived, Lowry said ducks, geese and other wildlife began taking up residence. There’s also no fence; Method has turned the property into an outdoor gathering place during warm-weather months.

Plenty of public sector support

Lowry credits proactive individuals with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration with helping Method’s chief financial officer tap into tax credits, expedite permitting and find other incentives that kept costs lower and allowed the company to do “remarkable” things. He not-so-affectionately describes these programs as a “ball of spaghetti.”

His advice to sustainability executives evaluating a similar project for which there is no clear precedent: establish these contacts early. Otherwise, consider another location where the local support is stronger.

This “requires an abnormal level of coordination between lots of different government agencies, incentives at the city, state and local level, and integrating all that stuff,” Lowry said. “It requires zoning changes and permitting abnormalities. When you want to put the largest rooftop greenhouse in America on the roof, that’s never been done before. You need people in the city that understand not just what you're trying to do but why you’re trying to do it, and that are really bought into that.”

In the case of Method’s new manufacturing facility, the team required special consideration not just for the onsite solar and wind technology installations but also for the rooftop greenhouses managed by Gotham Greens. The goal is to grow up to 1 million pounds of pesticide-free produce annually, which will be sold through local restaurants, retailers and farmers markets.   

Do what makes sense

Right now, there’s no accommodation for urban farm installations within the LEED framework, Lowry said. What’s more, Method had to make construction accommodations to support it, such as reinforcing the roof. But the community benefits outweighed the drawbacks.

“It’s not a green roof, but it is growing healthy food,” he said.

Method’s strategy for managing the facility’s water footprint is perhaps even more novel. Lowry was concerned the traditional measures embraced by the site, including low-flow fixtures, drought-resistant landscaping and water recycling on the manufacturing line didn’t go far enough to protect the Great Lakes watershed. That’s because the majority of the water Method uses there is shipped out in the products.

So, Lowry, who happens to be an environmental scientist, teamed up with The Nature Conservancy on a project to “recharge” the watershed there. The initiative (which also includes Michigan State University) focuses on promoting sustainable farming practices that will replenish groundwater to the tune of 6 million gallons annually — about the same amount as the feature will use. Although it sounds counterintuitive, their work is focused on farms in “the thumb” of Michigan because they most directly affect the Great Lakes watershed.

“We considered all paths to determine the most sustainable use of water and decided to partner with The Nature Conservancy and Michigan State University’s Institute for Water Research for this program because it is highly traceable, accountable and ecologically relevant,” Lowry said when the program was introduced in late 2014.

Likewise, the Method team tabled other new ideas that seemed reasonable on paper but couldn’t be justified financially. One example: Method originally designed thin-film solar technology into a south-facing window wall that floods the offices and plant floor with sunlight. The catch: It would take almost 80 years to realize a return on this investment.

“Even if we could afford to do this, in my mind that’s just greenwashing,” Lowry said.

Instead, Method invested in two onsite renewable installations. The first is a 230-foot 600-kilowatt refurbished wind turbine installed in collaboration with Method’s bottling partner; the consumer products company pays a per-bottle fee for the power.

Three solar trees also are in the parking lot, each of which has a capacity of approximately 50 kilowatts (or 115 megawatt-hours annually). The wind-generated energy alone can cover about 30 percent of the factory’s energy needs.

“Having a portfolio of renewables maximizes your product over the course of a year,” Lowry said. 

Small team, fast decisions

The first phase of the plant gets its grand opening today, but Method isn’t done. For one thing, it plans to build a railroad spur there, so that the company dramatically can increase its use of this transportation method within its supply chain.

Lowry figures that rail transport will be at least 10 times more efficient than trucks. Right now, only 15 percent of its distribution needs are handled by this option. In the future, that number will be between 60 percent and 80 percent.

Sure, that’s great for the company’s carbon emissions story. It also makes good business sense.

“This is not an investment that we are making that sacrifices our financial outcomes for our social and environmental [values],” Lowry said. “It pencils out from a financial standpoint as well.” 

When I ask Lowry what advice he would give to another company considering a similar project, he answers without hesitation: Keep the team small.

Among those who helped Lowry orchestrate the Chicago plan were a skilled project manager who could coordinate deadlines; the company’s supply chain expert; an experienced general business manager; and (later on) an experience finance executive.  

“There’s no way we would have been able to build this thing as fast as we did if we didn’t have a super small team with really clear roles,” Lowry said. “We were able to make decisions much faster.”

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