Ecover: A Pioneer in Sustainable Economic and Social Development
“Globalization is not about standardization — selling the same bottle of Coca-Cola in the same way all over the world. It is about flexibility. That applies to everything — from the product to packaging to our marketing message. We are not a niche marketer. We are a niches marketer. We have to take all of the issues surrounding our products — performance, price, the message — and translate them into the worries, and dreams of people in real markets.”
Gunther Pauli, founder of Ecover, demonstrates what can be accomplished when a company systematically employs the principles of clean production and social sustainability.
Ecover develops cleaning products targeted for households, hotels, and offices. Instead of relying on petrochemicals for cleaning agents, Ecover utilizes the cleaning properties of sugar, vinegar, starch from potatoes and corn, pine oil, coconut oil, and pits from fruits.
Ecover’s corporate responsibility starts at the design phase, when they are considering how their products will be made. Product designers and engineers take into account the environmental and social impacts that could occur during the manufacturing process, the trade agreements on materials, the use phase and disposal of the product to ensure that the products will be safe and clean throughout their life cycle.
Ecover creates products that work for the social and environmental needs of a particular area. For example, the City of Amsterdam has very soft water, which requires less treatment than hard water. Ecover created a specialized detergent for Amsterdam that eliminates 12% of the ingredients in their standard formula. They plan to do the same thing for the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and Northern California — all of which have some of the softest water in the world. Right now, many of these communities rely on cleaning agents produced by large scale companies such Procter and Gamble and Unilever, who are only organized around economies of scale, which produce standard products for everyone, forcing some people to use and be exposed to 30% more petrochemicals than what they need for cleaning.
Recognizing the economic discrepancies between rich and poor countries, Ecover has established a fair trade initiative in Colombia, which has created incentives for farmers to stop growing coca (for cocaine) and start growing cash crops needed for Ecover’s cleaning products. Ecover uses essential oils — natural perfumes — to meet the customer demands that products need to smell clean to be clean. Colombia is home to more than a thousand natural perfumes. In the 1940s, synthetic perfumes eliminated demand for natural perfumes, which was one of Colombia’s largest exports. Lemon grass, which grows like a weed in Colombia, is one of the essential natural perfumes used in Ecover products. Ecover pays farmers US$600 per acre for lemongrass, which far exceeds the US$12 per acre for coffee and the US$300 for coca. Ecover buys directly from a local company to avoid intermediary costs.
Ecover’s main manufacturing plant is one of the world’s first biodegradable factories. The plant has a grass roof to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Wind and solar energy power the water treatment system. They have adopted a zero emissions philosophy. And the bricks in the walls are made from recycled clay from coal mines.
Ecover is setting a standard that will help change the way products are manufactured and used throughout the world. By adopting a sustainable system, they have proved that products can be produced and money can be made while benefiting the environment and society at large.