Do we really know what goes into our eco-friendly cleaning products? Where they're made and why they work? Despite being a loyal Ecover customer for many years I must confess ignorance. Like many people I trust what it says on the label and the reputation of a brand name. So when the call came inviting me to take a trip on the Eurostar to visit Ecover's HQ in Belgium I jumped at the chance. Doing a quick spot of research in the TreeHugger archives before I left I found the recent kerfuffle over traces of dioxane in Ecover products and began to wonder whether I could dig up any dirt on this squeaky clean brand. Click over the page to find out how I got on...Where do they make eco-friendly cleaning products?
"Pigs can fly, Earth is square, Nuclear Energy is safe." These are the words that greet people as they enter Ecover's eco-factory and next to them is the mural that you see pictured above. It immediately gives the impression of being a happy sunshiney cartoon place, and apart from the fact that we'd arrived in an industrial park in rainy northern Belgium, with no palm trees in sight, this isn't too far from the truth.
There are definitely some utopian aspects to Ecover's HQ, with a row of Hybrids parked in the staff car park, a green roof on their eco-friendly factory and a flower bed in the middle of the board room table, you can tell this is not exactly business as usual. Although after 28 years of research and product innovation we can't say they don't take the business of making eco-friendly cleaning products very seriously indeed.
Getting down to the business of eco-friendly cleaning products
Sitting at the Ecover's board room table, transfixed by the amazing aloes planted down the centre of it, we listened to technical guru Peter Malaise (pictured above), talk about the background context of the company founded in 1980 by the Belgian soap producer Franz Bogaert, whose main aim was to produce eco-friendly cleaning products without phosphates. Peter's official title within the company is Concept Manager and he knows all there is to know about making eco-friendly cleaning products.
Peter referenced the 1987 Brundtland Report and it's definition of sustainability in terms of Ecover's mission statement. "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." For Ecover this means creating and producing products that are in themselves sustainable, but also creating and producing them in a sustainable way. Peter also emphasised that while Ecover works toward sustainability, it can never fully be realised.
"You never reach sustainability, you are always on the road. Because when you're at a certain point some new things come up. And it goes on and on. It's not something that you reach one day, it's more like a lifestyle for a company. You try to incorporate it in everything that you do, down to the tea, coffee and cookies, all business and even the factories. The process is sustainable, but so are the buildings, and when we buy a car we look at the type of car."
What's in eco-friendly cleaning products?
Ahaaa... well that explains the green roof and the hybrids, but what about the products? The usual business triangle of price, product, convenience is expanded to a pentagon by Ecover to include the environment and health. "We want a product that really works and one that does not kill the planet." Peter does not claim that Ecover products are completely ecological, otherwise they would just be water, but he does describe them as 'environmentally sound". "There is no product from Ecover which has a persistent effect on the environment or health."
Some research that Ecover did into their competitors' products in 2006 showed that at least, "three market leaders in washing powders leave 10 % of their volume as stable leftovers after biodegradation in the environment. For how long? We don't know. Ecover products leave 0% after they biodegrade, they disappear completely into the system."
Is dioxane a mouse or an elephant?
On the question of dioxane Peter understands why there is concern, but describes it as people "focusing with a telescope on the mouse on the elephant's bottom." An extraordinary image to be sure, but one that illustrates the scale of the issue. "There are problems on an elephant scale which no one is looking at," he says. "Please look at the sea of surfactant that is plunged down the sink by hundreds of millions of people everyday on this planet. When that has been solved then I will be happy to talk about the mouse."
Peter believes that future innovation will provide alternatives, so that ethoxylation, the process that produces dioxane as a by product, will not be necessary, but these developments happen slowly. "The substitute technology is still not there, but it will come, there will be a way to work around this. Often there are people that won't accept that we have only just open the gates of hell and we are blinking towards the sun. These people want us immediately in paradise. We don't need eco-fundamentalism, we need eco-realism."
The green factory building, using laminated soft wood beams that take the weight of the green roof.
Which is to say that they are working on it! The overwhelming impression during my visit to Ecover is one of transparency and a willingness to discuss the issues. Conversations with both Peter Malaise and the Managing Director Michael Bremans were illuminating and honest. No Ecover is not 100% perfect, nor will they ever be, but they are constantly working toward a more sustainable future and surely that's what we should expect from them. I'll leave you with one last quote from Peter:
"There's no school for ecological cleaning products, we had to learn everything ourselves, but we continue to improve. We are now better than we were 28 years ago and 10 years ago and 5 five years ago, because by practicing you get skilled."
More on Ecover:
Ecover First Company to use Responsible Print Program for their Watercare Info Leaflet
Ecover – More Cleaning Solutions
Ecover Launches New Line of Laundry Products
People Tree, Ecover + Ecotricity Get It Together
More on Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products:
How to Green Your Cleaning
Which Eco-Cleaners Really Work?
Seventh Generation Household Cleaning Products
Method Home Cleaning Products