A Method to their Environmental Madness

It’s hard enough to be green these days. It’s even more difficult to be green and clean. It’s toughest yet to be green and clean and hip.

Most of the sprays, scrubs and soaps on our countertops and in our cabinets are concocted from chemicals that do a great job removing ground-in grime, but can be just as nasty to things we’d rather not destroy—like the environment.

Method, a small San Francisco company that makes biodegradable home cleaning products, is changing that, one dirty dish at a time—and doing it with the type of buzz normally more associated with glitzy hightech than stodgy extra-strength laundry detergent. (When’s the last time a friend asked excitedly, “Hey, have you seen the new box of Tide?”)

Method’s, uh, methodology is simple, says CEO Alastair Dorward. The company makes eco-friendly cleaners that work as well as traditional brands, smell like real flavors (mint dish soap, grapefruit wipes) instead of industrial solvents, and come packaged in eye-catching, stylish containers.

“Our brand is aesthetically attractive,” says Dorward, a Larkspur resident. “The fragrances are great. And from a household safety and environmental point of view, our products are better for people and their homes and better for the environment.

“These are themes that are becoming increasingly relevant,” he says. “Over the last ten years, people have become more conscious of design. Look at the success of the iPod as truly a mainstream brand. It has achieved much deeper [market] penetration because of design. And the greening of America has gone from a phenomenon that might be more true of places like Marin County to one that is becoming more prevalent nationally.”

As the financial analysts say, Method has hit a sweet spot. In less than seven years since college buddies Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan launched the company with F&F (friends and family) money from their kitchen, it has become a 70-person international enterprise that Inc. magazine recently named the seventh-
fastest growing private company in America.

Method sells more than 150 products, ranging from its signature bowling-pin-shaped (sort of) dish soap to air fresheners, in Target, Costco and other big stores across the United States, Canada and England.
As a private company, Method doesn’t like to publicize its sales, but Information Resources Inc., a Chicago firm that tracks the consumer products industry, puts Method’s 2006 revenue at $55 million, up about 80 percent over the previous year. By comparison, 4 percent is considered a good growth rate in the industry as a whole, says Dorward.

While those numbers are a drop in a bucket in a world where a mega-company like Clorox sells $66 million worth of Pine Sol alone in a year, Method’s investors, who include Silicon Valley luminaries like former Yahoo chief executive Tim Koogle, are no doubt thrilled with the return on their money. But the company has a larger mission as well.

“Essentially what we’re doing is proving that business can be an agent for positive environmental change,” says Lowry. A Stanford-educated chemist who got into the environmental movement because he “didn’t want to design chemical reactors for a living,” Lowry, 32, is most proud that Method’s products appeal to people who aren’t like him.

“The idea was that the people who are like me, who are ‘dark green,’ are few and far between,” he says. “Method is being purchased by people who aren’t necessarily environmentalists. They’re people who want to go green, but don’t know how or tried to and were frustrated. We allow them to go green in a way that fits their lifestyle. For me, that’s real environmental change—that’s really moving the needle toward a better place.”

Lowry wears the company hat of “chief greenskeeper” (think eco-green, not golf course green). “I shepherd the vision,” he says. “What a chief greenskeeper does is build greenness into every fabric of the business.”
It is a more commercial approach to environmentalism, one focused on changing products and reinventing business models rather than persuading consumers to alter personal habits. “I have a different way of thinking about environmentalism,” Lowry says. “Traditional environmentalism is too stodgy, anti-business and too depressing. I actually think business itself, as the largest and most wealthy institution on the planet, has the opportunity and the onus to create these changes.

“Traditional environmentalism says consumers should sacrifice for the environment,” he adds. “We think that’s wrong. Designers should design high-quality products that are green so the consumer doesn’t have to think about it. That’s what we do.”

Method relies on an extensive matrix of standards to ensure greenness, things like the source of raw materials, the fuel cost of transporting them, and whether the product is biodegradable and the packaging recyclable.

“The point is that we look across all factors in the [product’s] life cycle,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, but we do the homework so people don’t have to. We combine that with a beautiful aesthetic of great fragrances and great product design. It’s hip, not hippie.”

Indeed, Dorward says, most Method product buyers “are typically drawn to it for the first time because it’s a kind of a cool package . . . and [then] they’ll be happy with the way it works.” After that, he says, comes the “feel-good element” about the environment.

That’s OK with Lowry—whatever it takes to get them into the environmental tent. Until recently, he points out, many green products bore a stigma, undeserved or not, of being not quite as good as their browner counterparts. “The paradigm was ‘it’s either green or it works, or ‘it’s either green or it’s high performance,’” he says. That’s changing. “There’s more and more products like Method’s, and the Prius showed that an everyday passenger car that was green could actually pass somebody in traffic.”

Such signals of a greenward cultural shift—like the popularity of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and the cover piece on Wal-Mart’s organic initiative in Fortune—suggest a tipping point into “eco-fabulous, the convergence of style and substance,” Lowry says. “And that is exactly what Method is all about.”

Method has gotten a fair amount of media coverage lately, and the question always comes up of whether the company, with its alluring growth rate, might be sold or go public. Dorward demurs. “We’re not going to be the largest brand,” he says. “We see ourselves as a little tugboat that can move some of these big supertankers into a greener space. We’re not going to be the largest player, but to some extent we find ourself being a thought leader.”

Lowry, too, has his own thoughts about the future and what he might do when Method no longer needs his greenskeeper services. “I have a million ideas,” he says. “I would love to start a car company someday, actually a personal transportation company, because somebody needs to completely rethink the automobile and how we get from place to place.

“Maybe someday when I’ve got a little bit more time on my hands,” he adds. “But now I’m making soap.”