The Size Factor

The Size Factor

In Oregon, smaller businesses are having a hard time getting recognition for their environmental innovations. By April Streeter

Disenchanted by the lack of recognition he received for environmental innovation, Jim Rimer early this year packed up his Portland, Ore.-based environmental cleaning supply business, Bi-O-Kleen, and decamped to what he envisioned as a greener pasture across the river in Vancouver, Wash.

“In the end I was asking myself, did we have to live and have our business in Oregon?” Rimer said. “The economic advantages of Washington -- water is cheaper, power is cheaper, rent is cheaper -- looked good. And I was just getting tired of being ignored.”

In 1989, when Rimer began formulating Bi-O-Kleen’s first product, a general purpose cleaner and degreaser, he wasn’t interested in recognition, only company survival and a quality product.

“I didn’t want to come up with a chemical that was just a little bit better; I wanted a sustainable product that could be manufactured with zero effluents and where the raw materials were non-toxic,” said Rimer, who formerly worked as an industrial chemist. “As a whole, there seems to be a lot of denial in the chemical industry and among the big companies about what damage their products are doing.”

In his quest to apply green chemistry to laundry, kitchen and bath cleaners, Rimer focused on grapefruit seed, citrus peel and lime extracts in corn and coconut bases. As Bi-O-Kleen’s original purple-labeled cleaner gained steady acceptance in the market, Rimer also pioneered the use of 100% recycled plastic containers and gradually introduced new products such as a fruit and vegetable wash, a stain and odor eliminator, and a phosphate-free dishwasher soap. As Bi-O-Kleen grew into an enterprise with $3 million in annual revenues, Rimer also worked on making his formulas more “readily biodegradable.”

“It has taken us a longer time to get name recognition, partly because we didn’t let the bottom line come first and didn’t have millions in ad budgets,” Rimer said. “But how much does a person really need? We’ve always made a decent living.”

Inside the company, Bi-O-Kleen concentrated on cutting waste with the help of a grant from the local Business Recycling Awards Group. In 1998 the company was recognized with an award from the Association of Oregon Recyclers. But Rimer was beginning to feel that state resources and recognition available to small businesses on the environmentally friendly path were insufficient at best. He wrote letters to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Ron Wyden, asking for grants or help to improve his processes and grow his business.

“We never did hear from them,” he said. “It was pathetic.”

Size Matters

Rimer’s frustration is probably not uncommon, said Jennifer Allen, sustainable business liaison at the Oregon Economic and Community Development department in Salem. Allen said it is her job to help companies like Bi-O-Kleen, but there isn’t a set way for smaller companies to come to her attention.

“I think there’s new recognition that it is the small businesses that are providing growth and opportunity in Oregon,” Allen said.

“Unfortunately, there is a cultural tendency that equates bigger with better, and that’s at work in sustainability, too. It’s just sexier on a larger scale.”

One of the biggest problems is that small businesses are diverse and might not benefit from any one-size-fits-all initiatives. “What would be the most meaningful help? Is the main thing resources for marketing? Is it regulatory assistance?” Allen asked. “We’re still at the stage of pulling people together in our organization to think of these issues strategically.”

Allen is placing hope in the new executive order on sustainability due for release in late June by Gov. Ted Kulongoski. It’s expected to offer a more prominent role for the Oregon Sustainability Board.

At a recent City Club gathering, Sustainability Board member Bill Blosser said creating profiles of small, innovative and sustainable businesses that Oregon wants to promote and retain is just as important as formulating metrics to measure if companies are making meaningful progress.

“Enough Was Enough”

For entrepreneurs already in business, the reality may be that few resources are available for chasing the environmental innovation niche.
“There’s a lot of information on sustainable practice out there, but it’s not necessarily geared to small businesses,” said Richard Grant, small business technical assistance liaison for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. “And the small business universe is just so hard to reach. Although sustainable practices can help a business survive, they are too busy surviving to pursue them.”

Grant said word of mouth is still the main way those with resources, like him, connect with businesses.

But this information comes too late for Jim Rimer. Last year, after a short skirmish between Bi-O-Kleen and the state Fire Marshall over the company’s storage of soda ash, Rimer said he was ready to look further afield for his company’s larger digs.

“I think we were considered a flagship Oregon business, one of the most environmentally friendly in the state,” Rimer said. “Oregon is my state…was my state. I still love Oregon. But enough was enough.”

Rimer’s vice president of sales and marketing, also his daughter, has kept close watch on expenses since the company moved from its old 5,000-square-foot facility to the new 18,000-square-foot factory in Vancouver. “So far, it’s been kind of a wash,” Cindy Rimer said. “I’m still watching to see if there are any significant savings.”

But room to grow has given Jim Rimer renewed enthusiasm for pursuing new product formulations. “We’ve got an entire line of soybean-based products coming out – a non-toxic weed killer, an incredible mosquito repellant. Our technology is terrific and our green chemistry is state of the art.” Rimer paused a moment in his enthusiasm. “Oregon lost a really good company.”

This article first appeared in the July 2003 issue of Sustainable Industries Journal.