While brands rush to prove their policies are environmentally sound and responsible, there is one brand whose entire ethos is to ensure it is not harmful to the environment: Ecover. And it’s been around for over 25 years.
Established in 1980 in Belgium, the brand was a trailblazer in the ethical goods market. The brand marketed a phosphate-free washing powder before phosphates were identified as being an environmental problem. Until the early 1990s, distribution was limited to health food stores in its domestic market and the UK, which remains its biggest market.
The company says that since 1999, under the sole ownership of Jørgen Philip-Sørensen, Ecover has developed into the world’s largest producer of ecological detergents and cleansing products. Headquartered in Malle, near Antwerp in Belgium, Ecover has production sites in the US, Switzerland and the UK; and its products are marketed in more than 20 countries.
Frans Boggerts, a soap salesman who had been made redundant, set up Ecover by making his own phosphate-free cleaning products in his garden shed, moving to the factory in Malle in 1987. By 1992 the UK was its biggest market and the brand was distributed in supermarkets. But the jump to the mass market squeezed the company, and Boggerts’ son – who by this time owned the company – sold Ecover to Sørensen.
It also faced new competition from the multiples, which were making their first jump onto the eco-friendly bandwagon, and they soon began to eat into Ecover’s market share. The company looked to be in trouble but according to chief executive Mick Bremans, the decision was taken not to alter its positioning or compromise its ethos, despite much advice to the contrary.
He says investment in new facilities and a commitment to ethical practices and environmentally friendly products held it in good stead and paid off. Bremans says turnover last year surpassed £30m and growth has been consistent since 2000 with over 25% year-on-year growth – the reason, he says, why it opened a new factory in France.
But as David Oglaza, founder and director of GuideMeGreen, an online platform that aims to help green brands increase awareness among consumers, points out, Ecover’s position looks under threat again. “Ecover was one of the first green brands in the UK. There are not many green companies with multi-million pound turnovers at this stage, but many of the household brands, including the supermarkets, are greening themselves in order to capture a slice of the eco market,” he explains.
“The majority of consumers don’t care whether a product’s from a green company or a household brand with an eco-friendly version. People buy Nestlé fair-trade coffee even though the Nestlé brand is subject to boycotts.”
However, Bremans is adamant that Ecover’s sound environmental credentials will win out. “We have full control over all manufacture. We are transparent and clear about our objectives and practices. Our mission is efficient sustainable solutions to hygienic needs, and we fulfil this.” He adds that despite increasing sales and consumers’ growing concerns about the environment “pushing into the mass market is not our immediate objective. Increased interest among both consumers and government about the environment may benefit sales, but you need the right product. Ours is a clear proposal to consumers.”
But the issue of product effectiveness plagues Ecover, says Interbrand director of brand strategy Beth Clayden. “Consumers are well aware that Ecover products are not as effective as other brands. The brand has a fantastic objective and it’s a great place to occupy at the moment as consumers look to ‘offset’ their anxiety by doing their bit. But consumers are not forgiving if a product does not perform.”
Bremans counters this, saying: “The perception that green products do not work is history. We now carry the Good Housekeeping logo and Which? magazine ranked Ecover above leading detergent brands in terms of effectiveness.”
However, Clayden also points to the issue of branding, saying that the Ecover brand looks a little stale and has stuck to the conventional laundry colours. By contrast, others point to the fact that many supermarket eco-friendly detergents adopt a similar look – testament to the fact Ecover got it right.
But Oglaza says marketing is an issue for Ecover. He says that “as household brands have marketing budgets to keep them there, many people will switch to the green version of their favourite brand as opposed to buying Ecover or another green brand when trying such products for the first time. In this regard, Ecover and other such brands will struggle without the advertising budgets of the household giants.”
Bremans concedes marketing investment is not huge, but says it is in the “few millions”. The strategy is handled in house, while in the UK Bray Leino handles communications and digital strategy. The brand has stepped up its activity in recent years. This year it has teamed up with the Stop Climate Chaos action group, carrying an on-pack promotion, and most recently is running an initiative with ethical clothing brand People Tree. It has also teamed up with local charitable and non-governmental organisations to promote sustainability, and it has just signed as sponsor of Green TV, the digital platform.
However, Bremans is adamant that marketing is secondary. The products, he says, sell themselves, and the company – focused on being truly sustainable and always bettering itself – is a major selling point for consumers.
While Ecover may appear to be under threat once again from multiples and traditional laundry brands wanting to be greener, it is not ready to roll over just yet. Last year it bought Wellmans skincare brand and is also looking to further its own skincare offering. It already has a range of personal care products and wants to extend this into shampoos and conditioners.
Facts and figures
1980 Established in 1980 in Belgium, by Frans Boggerts, selling detergent in small health shops in Benelux and the UK
1990s Rolled out to supermarkets in early 1990s
1999 Jørgen Philip-Sørensen becomes new owner
2000s Ecover becomes the world’s largest producer of ecological detergents and cleansing
2007 Ecover has production sites in the US, Switzerland, and the UK; its products are marketed in more than 20 countries. Builds new sustainable factory in France, and sponsors online environmental portal, Green TV.