Method: Balancing Performance, Looks and Safe Materials

Method: Balancing Performance, Looks and Safe Materials

Greener by Design 2009 One of the biggest and most recognizable companies in the green cleaning world is San Francisco-based Method. One of the companies' hallmarks, and one of the reasons it's stayed so successful and grown its reach, its it multiple commitments to improving the ingredients in its products, making visually appealing packaging and ensuring that its products work just as well or better as everything else it sits next to at stores.

Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about the indepth work needed to clean up cleaners, and why all the new green products from mainstream companies don't worry Method.

Lowry is just one of the many innovators working in the world of green design who will be speaking at next week's Greener by Design conference.

Jonathan Bardelline: Method has been making cleaners for about eight years, and could you give me an overview of the history of your ingredients? In those years have you made any major changes to the actual ingredients you've been using?

Adam Lowry: Yeah. We've made a lot of changes to ingredients. We're continually looking to bring in the leading edge of ingredient chemistry and really product packaging materials as well. So we're constantly changing both of those.

Sometimes we're doing that from suppliers that come up with novel new chemistries or packaging innovations, materials innovations. And then sometimes actually we're partnering with packaging suppliers or ingredient suppliers to develop proprietary solutions that are sort of new and unique things that are kind of solving both design problems as well as environmental problems within the product's design.

JB: More on the ingredient side, have you had to swap out ingredients where you find an either safer or more environmentally friendly ingredient?

AL: Well, yes. We're always doing that. So what we use is we actually use a scorecard. Think of it as sort of a green, yellow, red. And we've got it for every single ingredient in every single Method product. And we work with Dr. Michael Braungart and his team at MBDC and EPEA, and we outsource material evaluation to those guys so that it is independent, third party, peer reviewed science.

And if you think about each ingredient as a green, yellow, red, we won't do any product if any one ingredient is a red, okay? But there's a lot of greens and yellows. Not every product is perfectly green in terms of across its entire lifecycle, not as perfect as you want it to be. And so in some cases, those are yellow, which means they're okay to use, but you're constantly looking for better alternatives. We're not going to rest on our products until every single ingredient is green across the board. Does that make sense?

JB: Yeah. And to get to those green ingredients, is it people within Method doing the work, your suppliers finding the alternatives?

AL: Yeah. It's usually all of those because - for example, preservatives, which are in some products, some Method products, and they're required in certain products. Like personal care products, you have to have preservatives to keep them from going rancid. Those are products that are inherently a little bit more difficult to make green because they kill bacteria, of course.

And so those are ones where we're not manufacturing those preservatives, our suppliers are. So we have to work with our suppliers, show them what's important on our scorecard in terms of coming from a natural source, being biodegradable, being nontoxic, non sensitizing - like (not) causing irritation and things like that - educate them on what we're looking for, and then provide for them the carrot of our preservative business to say, “Listen. We need to develop a new and novel solution in this area that solves a need, that makes our products a little bit greener because it's a better preservative than what's been available in the past."

And so we do a lot of that in a very targeted way. We do that in the surfactant world with the detergents and products. We do that on preservatives. We do that on fragrances. We do that on enzymes, all of the different functional ingredients that make up a cleaner.

JB: Has that been something difficult to get suppliers on board with?

AL: Well, I'll tell you one of the things that has been difficult is when we first started that process nine years ago now, a lot of times the suppliers didn't even have the information that we were asking for. So if we were saying, “Okay. Hey, you've got this enzyme material. Where does it come from? How are you making it? Does it have any issues with causing allergic reactions?,” things like that.

We'd ask this series of questions that we always ask about all of our material, and they wouldn't know the answers because they have suppliers who have suppliers who have suppliers. And they actually hadn't asked all those questions. So very early on in the development of Method, we were doing a lot of that digging up of information through our suppliers. And if you can imagine that we have a relationship with our direct supplier, but we don't have a relationship with their supplier. It's a pretty laborious and tedious process to kind of go to that level of depth. But in my opinion, you can't truly achieve greener design in a product without that type of blue collar, roll up your sleeves sustainability work without going to that level of depth.

JB: Have you had to convince them to say, “Yes, please find this out?" Have there been any who said, “Too much work?"

AL: Well, sure. There have been some that have said, “That's too much work,” or, “We don't want to do that,” or in some cases they say, “Sure, we'll do it,” and then it just never gets done. And those are suppliers that we've chosen not to work with, because this is something that as I just said, it's critically important to creating a green design to be able to take those materials and trace them all the way back and all the way across their lifecycle. And if you can't do that, you're faking it. You're faking it.

And so we need to work with suppliers since we don't make raw materials, we don't grow coconuts. We need to work people that have that level of transparency, have the willingness and the eagerness to go and birddog that information that we're looking for.

And the reward then for them is to work with one of the most innovative companies in home care that's really leading the way from an innovation standpoint that allows them to develop new markets. We try to create that type of symbiotic relationship so that there's something that we can give back to our suppliers for the extra level of depth that we're asking them to go to to work with us.

JB: And on a similar note to changes in ingredients, have you made any major packaging changes over the years? I know that in the past couple of years you started using 100 percent recycled content plastic bottles.

AL: Sure. So the answer overall is yes, we've done tons and tons in the packaging world. One of the biggest ones has been what you just mentioned, which is 100 percent recycled content, which is actually really difficult to do in clear plastic and PET. And it's difficult because recycled material generally isn't clear. It's kind of dirty from the recycling process, and it also has some integrity problems with the package itself.

And given that the design aesthetic is so critical to the Method brand experience, product experience, we needed to find a way to work with our suppliers to get very clean recycled PET so that we could bring it all way up to 100 percent. And the reason that that's important for us is we have an axiom at Method, which is we believe in reincarnation, we want every Method package to have a past and a future. And I challenge my packaging team, I want to know what was this bottle before it was a bottle, and what will it be when it's no longer a bottle. And 100 percent PET allows us to get there.

Now that's just one example. I'll give you two other quick ones. We're making our wipes packaging out of what's known as a flow wrap film. Think of a potato chip bag. And potato chips bags are not recyclable because they're multilayer materials that are sort of laminated together. You can't separate them. And that was something that we just weren't happy with. Sure, you're using less plastic, so to speak, than a canister, but the fact that it wasn't recyclable means that I couldn't answer that question that I ask my packaging team: What will it be when it's no longer this package? We actually partnered with our film supplier and we developed the world's first recyclable flow wrap film.

And then I would just mention the last one. One of the big innovations that's happened during the course of the last nine years, the history of Method, is the advent of biopolymers. And biopolymers is a very controversial topic because there's not generally end of life scenarios for biopolymers that are really great, meaning there's no recycling for them, and the composting that is available must be done on an industrial basis, so you can't do it in your backyard.

And so what we've done is we've actually experimented and brought biopolymers to Method in areas where that makes sense. Like for example, we did a wipe material - the actual wipe material that's normally thrown in the trash - we did that out of 100 percent biopolymer a few years ago in our Omop product. There's another example of bringing material innovation to the packaging.

JB: And you mentioned aesthetics, and that was going to be one of my questions: When you're making changes to either ingredients or the packaging, how does the issue of the product performance and the appearance affect these kinds of decisions?

AL: Well, product performance is non-negotiable. We will not launch a product unless it works absolutely as good as or better than the mainstream brands, not the green brands, but the mainstream ones. So I'm talking about the traditional stuff that is sometimes toxic and the things that we worry about. We've got to work that good or better.

The reason that our toilet bowl cleaner is only a year and a half old is for that reason. I struggled for eight years to find a green chemistry that work as well as the glycolic acid and phosphoric acids and things that people are using in toilet bowl cleaners, and failed. And then only when I did find a solution to that did we launch the product. So it starts and ends with product performance. This stuff has got to work. And we made sure that it does.

On a design aesthetic standpoint, these are products that are very neglected from a design standpoint. And if you're going to have a dish soap that sits out on your countertop for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day and you use it for the other 15, why not make it an object that's pleasurable to look at, that creates a little bit of delight? If you're going to have an air care product sitting out or something that plugs into the wall, why not make it look like something you'd actually want to have in your home?

There's sort of a test that we run for that where the creative people here within Method are ensuring that from the packaging to the vibrancy of the color, to the form, the entire design itself is something that's going to be something that gets people excited.

JB: Regarding the product performance, you mentioned competing with the mainstream companies, and with more mainstream companies launching their own greener versions of their cleaners, have you been affected by that? Has it become competition for you?

AL: We really haven't been affected by the entrance of a lot of the big companies entering into the green space. It creates a little bit of competition over shelf space just because there's just a massive proliferation of green brands right now. But if you look at what's being launched, everybody's launching the same product.

The packaging's very similar. The branding's very similar. And the products themselves, what's in the products, is nearly identical. What they're missing is a couple of things. Number one is the proprietary chemistries that create the performance that we've got. So, for example, in our auto dish product - we have a product called Smarty Dish - that's the only product that doesn't have phosphates and bleach and will actually outperform the ones that do. And that's because of the proprietary chemistries that we've got. They're missing that.

And then they're also missing the fact that this is a product that's a lot more than just a green alternative to the toxic stuff. And so what we see with a lot of those new entrances is it's not hurting us, it's actually hurting the toxic stuff that often those same companies make.

JB: To go back to what we were talking about with the changes you've made to ingredients and packaging, regarding the whole of any of those changes and decisions you've made, have there been any going into it you had a preconception of whether it would be easy or difficult, and the end result was opposite of how easy or difficult you thought it would be?

AL: Yes. I'm sure. That seems to happen - it seems to happen all the time. You have an idea of substituting a product or an ingredient and it turns out to be more difficult.

I'll give you one example. Propylene glycol. Propylene glycol is a material used in personal care extensively. It's derived from petroleum. But aside from that, it is a relatively innocuous material. But it's derived from a petro source.

We actually worked with a supplier to come up with a bio source for propylene glycol, and it's basically chemically identical. But there were some problems in the way that it worked with the formulations in terms of how viscous they were and how they felt and things like that.

That was something when we found the alternative for propylene glycol that was actually bio based - was a natural propylene glycol - we got real excited. We thought, “Okay. This is going to be great.” And then it ended up being a whole series of lab work needed to be done in laundry products and in personal care products to make sure that that natural propylene glycol actually worked in the formulation. So I would say that that happens on almost every material.

Sometimes it's easier than you think, but it really seems like most of the time it's a little bit more difficult than you think to make those types of substitutions.

JB: All right. Well, we look forward to seeing you at Greener by Design later this month.

AL: It'll be my pleasure to be there. I can't wait.