The chief executive of the world’s biggest supplier of ecological cleaning products is honest about how green cleaning products can really be

By Neil Jaques

“We’ve never called our products environmentally friendly, because they are not,” announces Ecover chief executive Mick Bremans, tucking into lunch at a London restaurant. “They still harm the environment. We hope – we know – that they are less harmful than other products, but they still harm the environment.”

Bremans says Ecover could probably make better ecological products, but as they would be significantly more expensive, he questions how popular they would be. “If nobody’s buying them, then what is the effect on the environment? Probably very little,” he says.

It is a declaration as candid as one has come to expect from a man who has run one of the most prominent green brands in the UK, and the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of ecological cleaning products, since 1994.

Honesty is par for the course at the company, based in Belgium, which deals only in renewable plant and mineral materials and can count a United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Roll of Honour award among its many environmental accolades.

Jostling for shelf-space in a cut-throat industry where globe-straddling behemoths such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble cast daunting shadows requires guts, ingenuity and, above all, consumer trust. Ecover hides nothing, confidently displaying all ingredients online, despite no legal requirements to do so, and is a vociferous advocate of ratcheting up regulatory standards and transparency rules for consumer products.

Ecological, economic and social considerations shape every aspect of Ecover’s business plan and are deeply embedded in the company’s culture. It even employs a “concept manager”, Peter Mailaise, who examines every company decision with forensic scrutiny and promotes continuous, pragmatic improvement.

“We gave him the responsibility to guard everything we do, and he has kind of a veto right on everything,” Bremans says.

Operating in the ecological cleaning niche is never easy; at times it can resemble a bewildering moral maze with critics and competitors lying in wait at every turn to either instigate or endorse the next exposé.

Many got their schadenfreude fix in November 2007 when Ecover had its Vegan Society endorsement removed for using water fleas (daphnia) to test the effects of detergents on aquatic life. Bremans is characteristically open, saying: “The moment they talked to us we said ‘sorry, we can’t continue to carry the vegan logo’ because this test is something we need to do – otherwise we are not loyal to our own concept of knowing what our environmental quality is.”

Green at home

For a true insight into Ecover’s progressive modus operandi, look no further than its flagship factory in Malle, Belgium. A 6,000 square metre roof is planted with sedum, which helps keep the temperature inside at a comfortable temperature year-round. Skylights maximise natural light and a water treatment plant uses biological processes for purification.

Everything runs on green electricity, and nifty mechanical trickery means its kettles can mix 25 tonnes of liquid while consuming no more electricity than a few flat-irons. It also has a state-of-the-art laboratory for quality assurance tests and research and development purposes.

A second factory built along similar lines opened in Boulogne, France, two years ago, partly to cope with increased demand, and partly to reduce the financial and environmental impact of exporting to the UK, Ecover’s largest market.

Ecover was formed in 1980 by Frans Boegerts, a newly redundant soap salesman, who was inspired to create phosphate-free versions of the cleaning products he had read were causing devastating river eutrophication. Initially supplying health-food stores in the Benelux countries, Ecover soon caught on and by 1992 it was flying high in the UK.

However, soon after breaking into supermarket mainstream, problems began to emerge.

Bremans describes a “green wave” in the early 1990s where consciences piqued and wallets loosened, but it was fickle and, coupled with the growing company’s inability to cope with the logistics of mass-distribution, it began hurtling towards bankruptcy.

With the company on the brink, Jørgen Philip-Sørensen, then the chairman of G4S, the world’s largest security services provider – and a wealthy man currently residing at number 48 in the Sunday Times Rich List – came to the rescue. By 1999, he had become Ecover’s sole owner.

“We realised that some serious decisions had to be taken,” Bremans says. “Instead of making ecological products that are washing and cleaning products, we decided we were going to make washing and cleaning products that are ecological.”

If Philip-Sørensen seems an unlikely sustainability hero, he is certainly committed to Ecover’s ethos, and remains uninterested in selling up despite several inquiries from wealthy admirers.

“Jørgen could easily make a lot more money than he ever invested in the company by selling it to one of the big groups, but that’s not the objective,” Bremans says. “He’s very keen for the company to adhere to its principles. I’ve never heard him oppose an environmentally influenced decision we’ve taken.”

It would seem to be a wise stance. Ecover, for all its achievements and trailblazing, has yet to truly make its mark. An indication of how pervasive its influence could be came in June when the company’s scientists unveiled the first ever eco-surfactant after a seven-year research and development marathon.

Bio revolution

Surfactants are the active ingredient in most household cleaners, and are produced using high temperature and pressure processes. Ecover’s new surfactant is produced in a special bioreactor. Benefits include less energy use during production, improved biodegradability, less toxicity and no reliance on plant-based surfactant materials from Asia.

Research and development manager Dirk Develter says it is a “revolutionary moment in the history of cleaning”. Bremans agrees, but is keen to stress that the quest for sustainability never ceases, with water use set to be targeted with particular aggression in the coming years.

Cleaning products do most damage once they drain out of sight, and although Ecover ensures its products go beyond EU regulations to achieve full biodegradation, the company is acutely aware of the need to improve the amount of water it takes to neutralise each dose of product. Bremans highlights Ecover’s toilet cleaner, which takes only one 400th the amount of water to neutralise it that is needed by its nearest competitor.

However, he says that there is always more to do. “Sustainability is a process, and it’s continuous. It is not something you just reach some day.”

An expanding market

  • Ecover turned over almost €70m in 2008-09, a 4% increase on the previous year – a relatively modest figure largely attributable to the global recession and UK-US exchange rates, and one likely to markedly increase in 2010. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, turnover grew by 26%, 26% and 21%, respectively.
  • Ecover offers 37 products, ranging from washing up liquids and shower gels to car waxes.
  • The company’s factories churn out 28m litres of liquid and 3,500 tonnes of powdered product annually to supply 29 countries worldwide.
  • After the UK, Ecover’s biggest markets are Belgium, France and the US – where it has become a must-use product for eco-conscious celebrities such as Chloe Sevigny and John Travolta. There is also increasing interest in Asian markets.

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