The Sustainable MBA

Method's Saskia van Gendt on honing operations

Method is setting the standard for clean manufacturing. Last fall, Bard MBA in Sustainability spoke with Saskia van Gendt, greenskeeping manager for Method Home. Method designs cleaning and personal care products that work for people and the planet. The company recently opened the industry’s first LEED-platinum certified plant in the Pullman neighborhood in Chicago.

Van Gendt is captain planet for Method Products PBC based in San Francisco. With a background in lifecycle analysis and systems thinking, she applies the science of sustainability with the strategy of business to influence and improve all aspects of company operations.

She leads greenskeeping projects for North America covering packaging, ingredients, supply chain, green building and third-party certifications through Cradle-to-Cradle and B Corp. Prior to Method, van Gendt led material sustainability projects in packaging and green building at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held Oct. 2 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. 

Bard MBA: Why don’t you tell us a bit more about Greenskeeping, and how your role differs from that of a traditional sustainability manager?

Saskia van Gendt: One of the cool things about Greenskeeping at Method is that we are able to integrate into all different functions of the company. I feel like I'm doing my best when I hear that my colleagues in other departments are leading the charge to get greenskeeping and sustainable practices integrated into what they're doing. That might be in bringing biodiesel into transportation or hearing the packaging engineers debate how much post-consumer material they can get into a product. That level of integration allows for a lot of really exciting work.

Bard MBA: Tell us about the South Side Soap Box and why you chose to pursue sustainable practices so aggressively at your first owned manufacturing plant.

Van Gendt: We opened our first owned manufacturing facility in Chicago in early 2015. It is the first LEED platinum facility in our industry. As you can imagine, it is a pretty significant investment and it really signals a permanent commitment to remain in business in a region.  

By building our own factory and features like a 300-foot tall wind turbine, solar panels and greenhouses on the roof, we finally feel like we have the ability to create a world-class and highly sustainable factory. That was a huge incentive for us so that we could build our products the same way that we always envisioned they would be, and showcase our process and products.

Bard MBA: It is unusual for a cleaning company, especially of your size, to do its own manufacturing. What were the benefits for Method to move away from contract manufacturing and build your own facility?

Van Gendt: We did have some amazing contract partners, but we have found that the main advantages of owning our facility is the flexibility that it brings. The inherent condition of contract manufacturing is that your product is being made right alongside your competitors’. We have a lot of unusual packaging formats, product formulations and different innovations that we want to bring to the category. Now we have more control and can be more nimble in those innovations.

We can run smaller tests of different products or prototype new ingredients in small batch formulations. We weren’t able to experiment in the same ways when we were using contract manufacturing.

In addition to the flexibility to innovate in our own facility, we also wanted to have more control over the environmental aspects of our manufacturing. With contract manufacturing, we could source postconsumer recycled plastic packaging, create our own formulations and have some control over our distribution. Now we also have full control over the actual manufacturing and final production stage.

Bard MBA: Method calls your facility the South Side Soap Box. How did you ultimately choose to build in the Pullman neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago?

Van Gendt: We were initially looking at about 150 different sites. Ultimately we landed in Pullman because the community itself was so welcoming. There was a really strong history of steel manufacturing in South Chicago, but over time a lot of the industry has left. We were also considering a site on Lake Michigan, but after meeting with local Pullman aldermen and community groups it became clear that we needed to build and create more economic opportunity there. Before we broke ground, we knew we were committed to hiring locally within the community.

BARD MBA: In the planning phases of the build, how did you identify and prioritize which sustainability priorities would be integrated?

Van Gendt: The business is based out of San Francisco, but we built the facility in the Midwest because it’s highly carbon efficient from a distribution standpoint. Not only are we in the middle of the country from an outbound shipping perspective, we’ve brought a number of supply stages — blowing plastic bottles, decorating, filling and distribution — under one roof. We have removed about 1,000 miles out of our supply chain for each bottle.  

The grid (in the Midwest) is more carbon intensive than California's, so we knew we would prioritize on-site renewables for our operations. We were able to buy a refurbished wind turbine from Germany and three solar trees that rotate to optimize the sun hitting the panels. The plant consumes 50 percent less energy than a conventional facility. We hope to ultimately be net-zero or sending renewable energy back to the grid.

The next priority was water. We are dealing with a major drought in California, so it’s great to know we are manufacturing in a much healthier watershed around the Great Lakes. We also know that our business is to put water into products and ship it around the country. We want to be as accountable for that withdrawal as possible. We have partnered with the Nature Conservancy to provide financial incentives to regional farmers to implement water saving practices. We are also creating about 18 acres of native Illinois prairie land on our own site. Overall, we hope to achieve water neutrality.

Bard MBA: We typically think about sustainability in terms of environmental issues, but the social focus of the plant is really interesting. What types of partnerships and educational opportunities are you bringing to the community?

Van Gendt: The old model manufacturing was very much at a fortress on the outskirts of community where people went to work. We are trying to build this new model that can be integrated into the community. With green manufacturing we don’t have hazardous chemical, toxic effluents or smokestacks. There's really no reason to have that fortress mentality.

You wouldn’t build a plant like we have unless you didn’t want people to come see, learn and experience it. The Pullman facility is designed to host visitors and be a real-life classroom to learn about recycling, renewable energy and green chemistry. We are seeing an evolution in the community where people are using the prairieland as a backyard for running and biking.

We are also partnering with a couple of local schools on curriculum around renewable energy and green chemistry. Students then come to the factory (and) you reinforce the classroom learning.

Between students and group visits, we have already had a lot of people coming through the facility. It’s set with a mezzanine that looks over the plant floor where we produce the bottles and batch the product. It has peeled back the curtain and reinforces our overall principles around transparency.

Bard MBA: What do you see in the future of your South Side Soap Box?

Van Gendt: We are a really ambitious company and are excited to see the evolution of the factory over time. We do have space to expand into some of our acreage over time with factory floor or more renewable energy.

I have a background in industrial ecology and would really love to see some co-location benefits of other manufacturing facilities. With the right partners in the future, we could manage waste heat and waste materials in supportive and synergistic ways where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’m hoping that we are an inspiration to bring more high-tech manufacturing in Pullman’s future.

Bard MBA: Method is sold in mainstream retailers like Target, Walgreens and Home Depot. You don’t use overt sustainability language in your branding and don’t target "deep green" consumers. That mainstream appeal has been a large part of your success. How you do you manage the line between wanting customers to know about your commitments to being a sustainable brand and wanting to get into as many homes as possible?

Van Gendt: When we started back in the early 2000s, we wanted to do something a little bit disruptive in the green cleaning space.

Five percent of consumers are specifically seeking green cleaning products. But many others are looking for green and also something else. They might also be looking for a wonderful experience or looking for something that is quite beautiful; that’s why we created those other elements to drive more mainstream appeal.

A customer might be buying our product because the color of the soap matches his shower curtain, he loves the fragrance or he knows it cleans his oven better than any other cleaner. Those scenarios are big wins because that customer may later find out, "Wow, this product isn’t harmful to me or my family."

Having that multidimensional experience that delivers on a lot of different levels creates a broader market. We have done some research and have found that Method products have become a gateway into green cleaning. Because we are available in mainstream retailers, a customer may buy our products and then will pursue other green cleaning products and brands.

Hopefully, we help customers come into the green cleaning space and stay there.

Bard MBA: What do you wish more people knew about your industry?

Van Gendt: There are plenty of topics that we find ourselves explaining over and over again about cleaners and soaps. But what surprises people most often is that we are doing a lot of unusual things around sustainability. One of the things that I really appreciate is that the business itself can be a platform for doing those unusual things. We get to test the boundaries around conventional design, conventional supply chains and the sustainability of our operations.

We make soap, but I think it's so much more than that because we really want to be a demonstrator of innovations. Some days, I feel that we could be making any other product, but the way that we address sustainability challenges is through making soap.