Wednesday, June 18, 2008

the clean team

The Independent (over in the UK) has a nice write up on method.

Clean team: the young entrepreneurs set to mop up the eco-market
By Josh Sims

That Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan should receive a Valentine's Day card is not surprising. Both in their thirties, they are brainy, clean-cut, all-American business types. That the card should be made of cut-up packaging is unusual. But that it should express love for their range of household cleaning products is plain off the wall. And yet this is not unusual: Method, Lowry and Ryan's eco-friendly brand of floor polishes, disinfectants, leather cloths and other friendly cleaners, which is now being rolled out across Britain seems to attract fanatical followers.

Indeed, in taking a stance in an industry that has done its best to ignore the need for green alternatives to the toxic chemicals with which we routinely douse our homes, Lowry and Ryan have made products associated with chores hip and desirable. Their safe liquids, sprays and gels come in the kind of sculptural, minimalist packaging that appeals to the iPod generation. And they are as new wave in their business practices – using solar energy, supporting workers' rights and fair wages – as their products. They are the Ben and Jerry of the toilet bowl – with a loo cleaner made from lactic acid, wipes made from sustainable bamboo and packaged in the world's first fully recyclable film pouch, and a mop made from recyclable, plastic they were told was impossible to manufacture.

"A lot of customers buy our products because they look cool. But the reason why most of them stay loyal is because they're green," reckons Ryan, a former advertising executive who speaks of Method being "an organisation of fun", whose employees gather for a "Monday huddle" to crack jokes and talk business.

Their beliefs are not, however, something the duo have been keen to bludgeon customers with. The greenness of the products is only passingly mentioned on their packaging, though it is explained on their website. Rather, touches of humour aim to provoke thought: "Does your home have a chemical dependency?" asks one tag-line; "You may not know what your bathroom tiles taste like, but your kid does," states another.

In many ways, their range's designer aesthetic is a cynical one, an admission that few people are likely to be converted to using green cleaning products on eco-credentials alone: stylish design is a Trojan horse to get into the homes of people more concerned that detergents and cleansers should smell nice or match the cupboards. But the strategy is working. In 2005, Method recorded sales of $15m (£7.7m). Last year they were nearly $100m. "When you're David against Goliath, the likes of giant companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble with endless dollars to spend, you're never going to win playing their game," says Lowry, a former chemical engineer and climate scientist who worked on the Kyoto Protocol and whose business title is now chief greenskeeper (Ryan's is ripplemaker). "You have to redefine the game."

That said, their beliefs have had to be strong even to get their brand this far. First, there were factories to persuade. "Normally, they solicit a brand for business, but we had to make the sales pitch to them: I'd walk in, tell them we had no money to buy shelf space in stores, show them a rendering of a funky bottle that's hard to make and tell them we wanted to fill it with a substance others were convinced could not be made. Oh, and that we didn't expect to sell much," says Lowry.

Resistance from manufacturers was followed by doubt from retailers. According to Lowry, with sales of household cleaning products in decline, the market offering nothing distinctive and the major manufacturers squeezing retail profit, interest in anything new, green or not, has been at an all-time low.

John Lewis was the first UK retailer to take on Method, and it's now sold in Waitrose, Boots, some Sainsbury's, Co-op and Tesco stores, as well as many independent shops. Finally, consumers have had to be lured into a new way of thinking. "There is still this misconception that "green isn't clean", that such products don't work," explains Ryan. "A lot of that comes from the big companies who are constantly drumming on about 'new and improved', that they deliver superior cleaning power," he says. "And we grew up with a lot of these old brands, so we don't look at that as evil, as they potentially are – there are chemicals in those products that really shouldn't be there. Ours is a simple mission: a happy, healthy home."

Thanks to their success in the US, they may not be alone on that mission for long. Lowry and Ryan suggest that it is, in part, convention that has stopped major players from tackling the green market. But there are also, they add, philosophical barriers. "There has been apathy, a lot of saying 'green cleaning products can't be made' or sitting on the sidelines asking, 'is this green thing going away, or is it going to stick around?'," says Lowry. "It shows these companies have no spine in having a clear point of view people can buy into. We don't want to wait to see if green thinking becomes the norm – we want to make it happen. Now those giant companies are realising there is a market for green products, they're going to try to out-Method Method."

That, potentially, is good for the planet. It proves a big problem for Method. But the duo draw a parallel between their company and Apple, which keeps being imitated but is always innovating to stay ahead. Method has new products in the pipeline, among them a concentrated laundry detergent it promises will be revolutionary, as well as moves into personal care, including new baby and kids' lines – all while pioneering new and, of course, chic bio-packaging. There's also a book, Squeaky Clean, a guide to detoxing your home.

"They're a way to bring delight into drudgery," says Lowry of their products. "And they're green. But all cleaning products should be."

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