A Belgian innovator comes up with a way to make a clean profit. Ben Casnocha is author of My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. This article appears in the November issue of eJournal USA, “Roots of Innovation.”
Can you do well by doing good? Can a successful innovation generate lots of profit for the inventor and also make a positive contribution to the environment? For Mick Bremans, a Belgian innovator, the answer is yes.
Bremans is chief executive officer of Ecover, which produces domestic cleaning products made of natural plant and mineral ingredients. The products compare to others in the industry in both quality and price; where they differ is their environmental friendliness. Ecover’s liquid soaps, washing powders, and detergents do not contain environmentally harmful phosphate or chlorine, and they all come in recyclable polyethylene bottles.
An eco-friendly line of products appeals to environmentally conscious consumers, a growing subset of the population. High appeal, of course, means high sales, which means more profit for Ecover ($15 million in 2007). Everybody wins: the innovator, the consumer, and Mother Nature.
The story would be different if Bremans’s products were sub-par or more expensive. A mediocre product with a “green” label is not enough for consumers. A good product but one that’s more expensive will also not succeed, despite a green label. Consumers want comparable quality and price and eco-friendliness. For companies, this is not easy to do. Usually, making a product out of nature-friendly materials costs more, which drives up the final product price for consumers. So the green companies that succeed must run very efficient operations.
Bremans, who in 2008 was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine, believes that decentralizing decision making in an organization leads to more efficiency and more innovation.
“Innovation must live and breathe throughout the modern organization,” Bremans says. “This involves all levels -– even factory workers. Besides, who understands flows, processes, machines, and products better than the people working with them on a daily basis?”
Capturing the ideas and insights of all employees may seem obvious, but it hasn’t always been that way at Ecover. When Bremans came on board, the setup was more traditionally hierarchical: “When I joined Ecover, it was primarily the research department that came up with new ideas of what the company should be doing. Today, every department plays a part in growing the business.”
Ecover is therefore an example of innovation not only in the environmentally friendly products it produces, but also in the processes that promote efficiency and cost savings.
Now in 26 countries, Ecover’s success shows that it really is possible to do well, do good, and be innovative — all at the same time.