Real Leaders

How to Run an Eco-friendly Company in a Demanding Marketplace

As we face the daily effects of climate change, overconsumption and the questioning of whether our industrialized world is sustainable, I was grateful to be asked to give my thoughts on the subject.

As the CEO and Founder of a natural cleaning products company for the past 23 years, I have certainly gone through many personal and professional reinventions along the way and now after writing the book “Detox your Home” – I am having to rethink my business model again.

Most businesses are not started with sustainability or even ethics in mind. As this article explains, the primary reasons are self-serving. Unfortunately, ethics are not a requirement for success.

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Hopefully you have an undying passion and amazing idea that will make lives better. If it’s indeed a great idea, the customer will respond, they really will. It may not be instantaneous, but growth in the beginning will not be your problem. The challenge will be as you grow, and new opportunities arise, that your principles will be challenged in ways you could never imagine.

Take for instance charities. I think we can all agree that charities are generally founded on altruism and a desire to help others. But as the movie Poverty, Inc. explores, many are causing more problems to the very populations they seek to help. One example in the movie is Toms Shoes – a company based on the simple act that for every pair you buy, they will donate a pair to a person in need of shoes. As Poverty, Inc. explores, the giving away of shoes for free put many shoe stores and sandal makers out of business in the communities they sought to help. They may have shoes, but valuable jobs in the community were taken away.

The time you are tested will certainly be when it’s most difficult to change. Why doesn’t Toms just change their entire model?  It’s clearly causing harm to a community they meant to help. But it’s very hard to stop when that machine begins rolling. When success has arrived, even the humblest of persons will be challenged monetarily or by ego to do the right thing.

So what do we do?

In my opinion we must hold ourselves accountable and keep those promises we made when we had just a hope and a dream. We are all human, we will be challenged, we will fall and we will also succeed. Here are a few reminders I keep nearby:

1. What is Your Company’s Ethos?

For an eco-friendly company, an ethos list is where you start. My own holds fairness and respect throughout. It’s quite telling now that I reflect on my work to date. Our mission statement typed on a 10” x 10” Mac over 23 years ago includes goal #7 – To treat customers with the attention, respect and detail we ourselves want to receive. In fact, the entire list is still relevant today, as a desire for justice and equality is still my passion.

The ethos list is the character of your company. It’s your religion and you should always refer back to it. When you start drifting off track (and you will) read it. Keep a copy of it framed nearby and make a point of reading it. Perhaps at your weekly meetings.


2. Be Willing to Change at Any Moment 

Our standards must always be held to the highest degree. Not easy when a big order comes in and they need the price to fall below your cost. Over the past two decades, we have reformulated our products for safety, and discontinued top selling products like dryer sheets because they don’t make recyclable ones yet that work. We changed our number-one selling product when the ingredients were found not to be biodegradable in water. It cost money, time and resources, but if we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t be in keeping with our ethos.

No matter how difficult it is, you must be willing to change when you can do better.


3. Manage Your Growth.

In my opinion, it’s very hard to be a huge company and have a positive eco impact. I have yet to see a large company ($100 million and above) – that hasn’t altered their quality and customer commitment to obtain that growth. Economy of sale can only help so much, and inevitably something gets cheapened to meet the margins needed. 

When you find yourself reaching that place in your own business, you must be willing to be satisfied with where you are and stay there.


4. Think it Through. What is The Impact of Your Product?

We applaud green energy like solar and wind power, but we still have to think through their affects – even though they are “green.”  Wind power is indeed a viable energy option, however in NY State they are planning on creating a whole field off of Long Island – where it is windy – but also filled with local fisherman. The wind machine beds will disrupt the habitat of the fish and take away jobs from local fisherman – who fish ethically, sustainably and provide the community with healthy food. An idea is not eco or sustainable if it helps one – but harms another. 


5. Know thyself.

If a client offered you a million dollars to package your eco friendly paper straw in plastic would you take it? All eco companies start with a desire to help others and the planet. Many people will tell you what they want, but never forget why you created your company and be willing to walk away if your values are not aligned – even if it’s a million dollars.

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