People Against Dirty – made up of Ecover and Method – has always been ahead of the pack when it comes to sustainability. Now, it’s faced with every company on the planet attempting to replicate its approach. And David Kennedy, Head of Product Experience for Europe, couldn’t be happier about that. “We think it’s a good thing. It’s not about how fast we grow the brand, it’s about having a benefit. If P&G copy what we’re doing on ocean plastic – making bottles from 50% ocean plastic – we think that’s great. It’s part of the role of Ecover.”
We spoke with Kennedy about the challenges of going green, and what’s next for sustainable businesses.
Can you tell us a bit about your role and background?
I joined People Against Dirty, now part of SC Johnson, in 2016. Prior to that I was at RB for 11 years in R&D and innovation roles. I’m now head of product experience for Europe, covering all product development and innovation to market across both brands.
How does your approach to sustainability compare to other companies’?
A lot of people measure things like carbon usage and water waste at a corporate level, but don’t build sustainability into the design of the product. They are beginning to integrate it much more with things like recyclable packaging. But there is always that battle between what the right thing to do financially is, versus, this may be slightly more expensive but better for the environment.
In contrast, we’re a B-Corp. This means we exist not just to make financial gains for shareholders but to benefit the world and society while growing our financial bottom line. We operate with a “triple bottom line” balancing value growth for the company with benefit to people and the environment. We always try and balance those three things, and ask whether the financials are outweighing the benefit to the people, when making decisions on product design.
Is that what attracted you to the role?
I’ve been at big companies like Kimberley Clark and RB, and the thought that a company like People Against Dirty could drive different decisions because of this way of thinking, was interesting. Sustainability and doing the right thing runs through the company from top to bottom; it’s in every discussion. It’s a really interesting model and leads to a much more satisfying place to work. It’s a much more rewarding and fulfilling role to think that we’re creating products that are making the world a better place, rather than just creating products to clean a barbecue faster.
Was this something that was important in your personal life beforehand?
At previous companies I worked at, I felt the financial growth outweighed everything else – that was the main driver. At the same time, there were all these startups doing interesting things. A big company could be so hamstrung – it’s a challenge to change the culture and consider decisions that may hurt bottom line in the short term, but long term will have a huge benefit. I wanted to work for a company doing things differently.
Does looking at everything through a sustainability lense help speed up decision-making?
A lot of decisions are driven by our sustainability goals; it focuses us. Everyone in our company, from product design to sales executives, we have a purpose that unites us beyond financial gain. It’s nice to hear people standing up in weekly meetings talking about volunteering at their weekends and how they are bettering society. It feels like we have a much greater shared purpose to benefit society and make the world a better place.
And that is a genuine belief that goes all the way through the organisation. We have an interesting challenge ahead though as our business grows. We currently have method and Ecover in Europe but our brand portfolio will grow in the next few years. For some people in the team their personal beliefs are so intrinsically linked to the brand beliefs, that expanding out into new brands will present a challenge. For example, scientists who have for years been working with fully degradable, locally sourced and non-toxic ingredients are not going to want to compromise on those beliefs, so those new brands will move to more sustainable formulations. When people in the team believe in something so fundamentally, you can’t ask them to compromise on it and that will continue to drive our decision making.
What were the challenges behind the ocean plastic bottles?
It’s a really difficult thing to do – employing post-consumer content to make a bottle. Using recycled content for the caps is much more difficult because there is not a recycling stream for them. We need to build up the recycling infrastructure round that. If we do that, other companies will want to use that material, and recycling companies will see value in it. We see our role partly in creating the demand for recycled materials by proving things can be done.
What more has Ecover done to up its green credentials?
We are going to move to 100% recycled bottles across the full range by the end of 2020, though it’s looking like the end of 2019 now. We’re looking at pioneering more sustainable packaging options. Home compostable packaging is a long term goal and we’re hoping to trial something by the end of 2020. The other big thing is to rethink the entire packaging system and move to refills and durable packaging. Moving to ecommerce will facilitate that – as more people shop online, it brings the barrier down for the consumer who can refill bottles at thome. We could deliver concentrates to the door – that could be in the next few years.
We’re trialling supermarket refill systems at the Waitrose in Oxford. It’s something we’ve always done at health food stores, and after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet was aired demand went through the roof. We’ll monitor all these trials closely to see what works. Another option is for people to buy refills from Amazon, where we ship smaller, more concentrated units out for people to fill up at home. If the consumer has a durable or plastic bottle at home, flexible pouches would be a lot easier to ship. The problem is those pouches are not recycled or widely recyclable, but we’d like to develop that. We’re looking at degradable refill pouches, moving to an ecommerce model where the consumer makes monthly purchases. There is going to be a shift in consumer behaviours over the next four or five years to those types of systems.
What are some of the biggest problems in becoming more sustainable that people are perhaps not aware of?
The consistency of recycled materials. We launched a new washing up liquid in 2016 with recycled, clear plastic. Part of the challenge was getting the right colour characteristics. The Method product, for example, is bright pink. But if the recycled plastic is dull or dark it can lead to a negative perception on-shelf. Interestingly in summer, when people drink more bottled water, the recycled plastic sources become clearer. The colour changes through the seasons. We need people to widen their tolerances to this material. We want to be fully transparent with consumers, and we find they are willing to accept the variation – the challenge is communicating that.
What can big businesses do to become more sustainable – so many will be anxious of the costs involved?
I don’t think it’s a choice – it’s coming. The plastic issue shows how quickly consumers move from being completely unaware, to it being a huge issue. Now everyone has to move in that direction. It’s always difficult when you look at your whole system together. We have done experimental limited editions on a smaller scale, such as the Ocean bottles. A compelling story around that proposition made it look and feel different – we weren’t trying to hide that. You need to just start the discussion with the consumer.
What more should the government do?
It’s running a deposit return scheme – where consumers get 5p for any plastic they return. A number of countries are placing higher taxes on plastics for companies. Putting the onus on companies to own the end of life of the product will grow over time. The UK government is also trying to unify the recycling system, because right now every county in England is very different. This will allow us as producers to focus on different things, such as how to make flexible packages recyclable.
As a brand you can become 100% sustainable but the consumer can still throw your bottle in the trash and not the recycling. How can we change behaviours?
I don’t think we can rely on consumer behaviour change to fix the issue – that will catch up. I think it’s up to us as manufacturers to lead that change, make the right choices and help consumers make the right choices over and over.
Our Q&As are usually 15-minute reads, but this one is worth 17 minutes of your time!
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