(This is the third installment in Planet Experts’ Trailblazing Women series. For more articles in the series, check out the links below.)
It’s easy to laud the environmental ambitions of Earth Friendly Products, which does exactly what its name implies: Make household products that are friendly to the Earth. In 2010, the company transitioned to running on 100 percent renewable energy, reducing its carbon footprint by nearly 54 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually and paving the way to becoming one of the first carbon neutral manufacturers in the United States in 2013.
But beyond its green goodness, there’s an even simpler reason to appreciate Earth Friendly Products: Its employees have got it very good.
In April 2014 (on Earth Day, to be precise), the company announced that it was increasing its minimum wage from $15 per hour to $17 per hour – one of the highest minimum wages in the U.S. – which affected some 44 percent of the company’s more than 300 employees. Not only that, but employees also get a bonus of a week’s pay on both Earth Day and Labor Day. And not only that, but employees also receive company subsidies for purchasing a hybrid or green vehicle ($2,500), installing solar panels ($2,000) and relocating closer to one of the company’s five facilities ($1,000) in order to lower their personal carbon footprint.
EFP also puts a significant emphasis on family, which is only fitting considering that the company has been owned and operated by the Vlahakis family since its founding in 1967. Dr. Van Vlahakis launched the EFP brand in 1989, and his daughter, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, has continued and expanded upon his green legacy.
It was under Kelly’s leadership that EFP opened four new manufacturing facilities across the U.S. and quadrupled its sales in the last 10 years. She has also served as a key strategic advisor to Walmart’s sustainability and conservation efforts and overseen the employee incentive programs that put EFP at the edge of both the environmental and business frontier.
She’s also exceedingly polite. When I contacted Ms. Vlahakis-Hanks about being featured in Planet Experts’ Trailblazing Women series, she had less to say about herself than she did about the women she worked with.
“I have a great team,” she explained, “and I think women oftentimes are really good at gathering and motivating their team to action, and really harnessing the power that each member brings to the equation. You can’t do these things alone. I feel very proud to be the leader, but I’m also really glad with the selection of people that are in my top camp. There are so many really talented women that lead alongside me. It’s a privilege.”
Why Should Products Be Earth Friendly?
The short answer is, because many of them aren’t even human friendly.
Technically, dangerous chemicals are prohibited from being used in consumer products under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The TSCA requires safety testing for anything that shows up on your grocery store shelf. But when the Act was passed, some 62,000 chemicals that companies were already putting in their products were grandfathered in. Meaning these chemicals, regardless of their affect on the human body, are more than likely in your home right now.
If that wasn’t scary enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected measurable levels of hundreds of these household chemicals in the blood and urine of “virtually all Americans,” according to Phillip Landrigan, the Dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan.
And if you think that means you’re probably fine, Kelly would like you to please think again.
“I really do believe that people are just unaware of all of the things that are in their cleaning products,” she said. “I’m always talking to people about the fact that there’s a definitive link between so many of the toxic ingredients in cleaning products and asthma, nerve and organ damage, cancer.
“There’s no formal household products labeling act that even says people have to list what’s in these products. So, you know, it is a scary thing, and you have to become a really informed and a really educated consumer.”
Dr. Vlahakis goal in creating the Earth Friendly Products brand was to offer the consumer a full, transparent understanding of what they’re using in their homes and on their bodies. That they don’t leave nasty byproducts that leach into the environment is a nice bonus, by comparison.
“As a mother, I certainly want to protect my child from all of these things,” explained Kelly. “There are so many things I can’t control, but this I can.”
Paint, carpeting and common cleaning products can contain substances like lead and formaldehyde. “It’s just not necessary,” said Kelly, “and there are alternatives.”
At present, the lack of awareness of the TSCA’s limited protection is what keeps many carcinogens less than an arm’s reach away. Kelly notes that there is a strange but understandable disassociation between those who want to live healthy and how all-encompassing that goal really is.
“They think of food,” she explained. “‘Oh, I need organic food and healthy food.’ But if you take the steps to buy organic food and then you put it on a plate that’s been washed with caustics or bleach or all of these other toxic ingredients that leaves a residue – that leaches into your food. If you put water in your glass, it leaches into your water and you’re literally drinking something that has a skull and crossbones on it that says ‘Do Not Consume!’ You know what I mean? It’s unbelievable.”
Making Green Goods Affordable
EFP is a relatively small operation compared to its multinational counterparts, yet its distribution stretches across the United States and throughout 65 countries. For the average consumer, the biggest obstacle to making their grocery list more sustainable is that it usually means more expensive, but EFP wouldn’t be able to survive if its prices weren’t competitive.
The company’s mission statement is that, “Keeping your family and your pets safe while protecting the planet should not be a luxury,” and the Vlahakises have dedicated themselves to that goal. Kelly wants consumers to control what products they bring into their homes, which means giving everyone equal access to healthy choices. “We didn’t want green to be for the affluent,” she said.
And though the stigma of “sustainable = expensive” still persists, EFP has avoided that equation by controlling every stage of its manufacturing.
“Expensive’s never been an issue for us,” Kelly explained. “Unlike most of the cleaning products companies in the United States, we make products ourselves. Most people use third-party contract manufacturers, they use overseas manufacturers, but we make everything ourselves in our five geographically diverse manufacturing facilities. And when you do that, you cut out the middle man. You build directly with a retail partner, so we’re able to keep our pricing excellent.”
Today, if you shop at Sams or Costco, EFP’s products are often opening price point, even compared to conventional brands, and that’s something Kelly and her company are very proud of.
Bringing Green to the Masses
In 2009, Walmart launched its sustainability initiative, a commitment to improving its products in an environmentally-friendly way and strengthening customers’ trust in its brands. Kelly and EFP have been a part of that initiative since the beginning, participating in nearly every sustainability consortium since.
“We were very vocal in the consortium and I certainly spent a lot of time talking about, let’s not just look at the packaging, let’s look at the content of the product,” said Kelly. “Because I think the low-hanging fruit is the packaging. Looking at content is imperative as well. […] It was exciting for me because when you have the largest retailer in the world saying, this is what we must do, that has a dramatic effect upon the nation, upon the world, the supply chain, and people really began reacting. It felt very good to be a company that was really leading that initiative and to serve as a model.”
Kelly took over as President and CEO of the company after her father passed away last year, but she has been working with EFP in one capacity or another for over 12 years. Under her leadership, the company will be expanding its Ecos brand to more of its products (their Ecos liquid laundry detergent is already the top-selling green detergent in the U.S.). She is also eager to put her company’s values front and center on its labels, which have traditionally listed the chemicals they do not contain.
“My father was a fantastic chemist,” she said, “and so if you saw our labels in the past, we were always saying, ‘free of this’ and ‘free of petrochemicals,’ and we were really trying to tout the environmental benefits – and we’ll still do that, but now we want to kind of create a more emotional connection with the consumer and really talk about the fact that we make our products with a lot of love.
“In this life, I think the most important thing is family, and the people that you love. And family doesn’t have to be just blood; it can be the larger family of people and friendships around you. As human beings, we want to protect the people that we love. And so I think being a family-owned business has given us a lot of momentum and support – and, you know, you don’t just go to the work during the day and leave, but it is our lives. We do it in the evenings, we do it on the weekends – it’s who we are and what we do.
“It’s a really unique business in that sense. Giving people the chance to protect their families is something we all want, and so really getting that message out there and letting people know there is something you can do. It takes a little more work, a little more elbow grease, but you can do the right thing and at the end of the day everyone wins.”