An interview with method’s “green giant,” Drummond Lawson

After trying many method products over the past 6-8 months and writing my method product review last week, I found I still had some unanswered questions about this innovative company and its products. Why do they still use petroleum-based ingredients? What’s up with the artificial fragrances? Why aren’t they signing the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and partnering with EWG? Why don’t their sweeper dusters break down in the compost bin?

So I got in touch with Drummond Lawson, environmental chemist and member of the “greens-keeping” team at method and started prepping questions about some of the concerns I raised in my product review.

I chatted with Drummond last week, set to probe through marketing shtick to get the answers I wanted. But for the most part, marketing fluff was refreshingly absent from the conversation. Instead, Drummond paints a rather inspiring picture of what a company can do not only to design a cool product, but to really agitate for change in a marketplace that has been about convenience at the expense of the environment for far too long. We also touched on method’s vision to put a greener soap on every sink in America, on what Clorox’s green line means to a company like method, on its work to develop better environmental standards, and on the secret to composting those danged sweeper dusters.

Drummond: It’s cool to see consumer awareness about products. It’s a gap in conventional media, so in terms of soapboxes, this [blogging] is a cool avenue.

ChezArtz: Thanks, Drummond. So tell me, what is a Green Giant?

Drummond: I work in the greens-keeping department which would translate at another company to Sustainability, so I’m essentially the sustainability manager. I was originally thinking the Green Giant was a super hero not a vegetable trade salesman. Adam Lowry [method’s co-founder & Drummond’s boss] is about six inches taller than me so it’s not a good fit in terms of names for me.

The greens-keepers end up working with the formulation chemists who select the ingredients and determine concentrations for method’s products. My interaction with them is to make sure these ingredients are green, that the materials are safe for use in the environment and on people in any concentration. Instead of having to build products with potentially hazardous materials, if you start with nonhazardous materials you preempt the problems. I work with the packaging engineers too to make sure the human health & environmental factors are considered in each decision. Its cool to work with a company that is doing it in advance.

ChezArtz: I read that you spent six months in Germany doing environmental assessments of all of method’s ingredients for the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA). What was that like?

Drummond: Yeah. Have you read Cradle to Cradle? [Editor’s Note: This book spawned Cradle to Cradle Certification, and the company behind the certification works in partnership with the EPEA] Cradle to Cradle is the most interesting book in the world. It’s super-relevant, it’s mantra is “How can you redesign the process of making all the things in the world in terms of making them environmentally positive?” The previous paradigm was buy less, do less, essentially sacrifice. Cradle to Cradle says go back and make really cool products like Frisbees and office chairs and toothbrushes. Instead of sacrificing them, redesign them so that they’re environmentally sound. For method it’s a vision to build the products by incorporating environmental factors from the beginning.

The key factor was that in the past, the materials were not really well understood. You knew what the best material was for arm rests for office chairs, but EPEA’s bread & butter was going out and assessing the materials to find out which one was best for the environment. How can we move to materials that you are comfortable with from the start. It’s a fundamentally different approach than even companies that are in the green product market are taking. It’s not as easy a message to sell because you’re not relying on a single term that everyone knows (green, natural, organic) to sell your product. But there is an appetite for people going out and learning more. People want to know: What is the bottom line on these materials?

ChezArtz: method has worked hard to get its products recognized by the EPA’s DfE program. As you move into more beauty & personal care products, do you have plans to seek a similar partnership with Environmental Work Group or the Compact for Safe Cosmetics?

Drummond: Yeah, we looked at the Compact. When I was at EPEA we worked on another brand that signed it. The Compact is going one quarter as far as they should. They’re making a baby step and using their corporate clout to make this visible without doing enough. We haven’t signed up for it because we’re not going to endure a very weak standard held up by people who are not doing enough. What we’re going to try to do is focus on organizations that reflect stronger standards for gentle, environmentally-benign bath & beauty products. We’re doing Cradle to Cradle certification on the full line of personal care products. That reflects the ingredients, where they’re coming from, what the packaging is like, the full package.

The DfE has the same philosophy as us with regards to using benign ingredients to start with. The EPEA is more rigorous. Every product we’re making does pass the standard. We’re interested to see how other standards come up or whether they’re maybe not as direct as we want them to be.

ChezArtz: But the Compact and the EWG are two of the only sources of publicly-available knowledge. What are you doing to reach out to consumers?

Drummond: Making these standards more visible is key. Traditionally the Dfe doesn’t work with consumer products, they’re more like institutional cleaning products. It’s important to have standards for industrial products, but it doesn’t help consumers pick something up off the shelf. So part of our efforts are around making these standards more visible to the public. We’re part of the community that’s hoping to make that a standard and make the Cradle to Cradle protocol more visible. We’re a very visible brand so we can draw attention to it. Giving consumers the appetite to learn more will help.

The EWG we’ve looked at it for a while and one of our green chefs has worked with them in the past. It’s very good for more cosmetic-focused brands. They do such a wide scope of work that they have to make generalizations that don’t really hold. Instead of looking at what specific fragrances or what specific colors are in a product, it paints them all with one brush. That doesn’t allow for more intelligent environmental design. The ethos for environmental quality here is let’s make the products accessible, let’s lower the price instead of making something super obscure. Between 2-10% of people make product decisions based mainly on how green something is, but we’re making something fun and beautiful so the other 90% can have a green soap on their sink.

ChezArtz: My pal over at A Mama’s Blog wanted to ask you the following question: After looking up the ingredients on Skin Deep, your hand soaps have potentially hazardous ingredients in them. Why are there potentially hazardous ingredients in your liquid soaps? How do you justify to consumers who are paying more for your soap assuming they are making a more natural option, only to find out method has more potentially hazardous ingredients then some conventional brands?

Drummond: So the key piece in this is the term “potentially hazardous.” There have been some dubious colorants and fragrances approved by the FDA in the past. These should not be approved in the first place, so that makes for a big workload initially to make sure the ones that are out there are safe. We use 13 colors out of the 50 that have been approved. So method & the EPEA have gone through those 50 and researched 9 FD&C and 5 chromophore colorants for aquatic toxicity, skin irritation potential, was there any accumulation in the body, would they stain surfaces, how durable were they? DfE and Cradle to Cradle approve the ones method uses. To make them super super colorful with small concentrations of colorant, you need to use these ingredients. So you’re using petroleum products, but they’re at .001% concentration.

Colorants we’re willing to cede ground on because we can get a huge effect with minimal input and the other 99.9% of the ingredients are coconut-derived. So all those 50 colors are lumped together as “potentially hazardous” in Skin Deep’s database. Same thing for fragrances. They have a huge potential for skin irritations because they’re volatile, they come from many different sources. The big focus on our fragrance is non-toxic, biodegradable, and not allergenic in sensitive or non sensitive people. Neat smelling products that open doors in the group of people that aren’t looking for a stripped down simple product. They’re a blend of a certain portion of essential oils. Our pink grapefruit is mainly citrus oil, for example. The synthetic products act as carriers and allow you to use less of the citrus oil, but make it so that you can smell them more easily, so you end up with this blend of natural and synthetic fragrance. We put a lot of work into getting healthy fragrances, but it’s put [by EWG] in the bucket with harmful synthetic fragrances.

One of the most contentious soap ingredients are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). It’s the simplest soap ingredients made from coconut. It’s used in everything including some detergents that are irritants. It’s not surprising that it’s ended up as a stigmatized ingredient. Used in high concentration and non-buffered, it is an irritant. But you can use it in smaller concentrations so it’s not irritating, but it’s still in the ingredient list and therefore shows up on EWG. Instead of relying on the key indicators for healthy ingredients, we’re making some hard decisions. SLS we’ve talked about a lot even though we’re very comfortable with it, should we pull it because of the public perception? So far it makes more sense to use it than to swap it out to get the PR points.

ChezArtz: As large, well-established companies like Clorox launch green product lines to meet the increasing demand for safe products, what will method do to keep growing and beat out the competition?

Drummond: We’re pretty excited to see that. It’s a very good sign because major companies are moving to green lines. The ideal green design is not to buy because it’s greener than the next one. We’re never going to sacrifice any points on green, but what we’d like to see is that every pair of shoes is designed with rubber that won’t irritate you, that every car will be built without that toxic new car smell. That [green] would just be a commodity, everything in the world is built like that. Once you get the playing field leveled out in that way, you find a new way to do green packaging or something else to make the product even better. We have a very recognizable brand, so instead of people buying us because we have a more biodegradable surfactant than the next green product, we want people to buy it because it’s a reflection of my house and the aesthetic and green principles of my home. That’s how you make a good product–not just being green to differentiate us.

Clorox hopefully can reevaluate all their products and see if they can produce those traditional products more green. That would be a good place to be.

ChezArtz: Many of my readers use cloth diapers (and I do too!), and optical brighteners are no-nos with cloth diapers. Now, I have to admit that I’ve been using your laundry detergent on my diapers anyway, but what’s up with the optical brighteners?

Drummond: Our new laundry detergents contain no optical brighteners. They’ll be in stores sometimes in the fall. That was one that we were conflicted about because we found a good one that was biodegradable, but it’s a funny concept–optical brighteners–it doesn’t clean any better but makes the clothes look more white. Funny way to get white laundry.

ChezArtz: And my last question is kind of tongue-in-cheek. Have you ever tried to compost the sweeper dusters for the o-mop? That was my very first method purchase and those sheets are still hanging out in my compost bins 9 months later!

Drummond: We don’t have residential composting in San Francisco because of space constraints. But I do know that they require a temperature over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the presence of water. Hydrolysis to break one of the chemical bonds in the sheets can’t happen below 40 degrees Celsius. Unless you’re turning it really frequently and making sure there’s water present, it’s not going to break down. At least it’s totally benign in the environment. That’s a really new material. They don’t generate as much static as we’d like them to and they don’t compost–it’s not quite the performance we’d like to see. We’ve brought this up to the manufacturer and they’re aware. The problem is not that many cities have municipal composting so that stuff like that can truly break down.

You can read more about Drummond over at Method Lust.

3 thoughts on “An interview with method’s “green giant,” Drummond Lawson

  1. I like your perspective on change. We often jump to conclusions about why companies choose to act in a certain way. We quickly assign “good” and “bad” labels based on snap assessments of their behaviors.

    This experience reinforces why we need to take a little more time to do our homework. How neat that you got to spend some time with such a refreshing individual.

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