How Ecover are experimenting with a bold approach to manufacturing on the island of Mallorca – and what other businesses can learn from it.

Waste pile

Will we be using the word ‘waste’ in 10 years’ time? Will it be a relic from times when we were so flush with oil, other materials, and space for landfill, that we thought nothing of discarding little-worn objects and replacing with things shiny and new? Will ‘planned obsolescence’ itself become obsolete? 

If you go by the chatter in sustainable business and design circles, the answer is yes. Because there’s a lot of talk of circular economies and closed-loop systems – which essentially means shifting our current ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to one that designs out waste, saving money and materials in the process.

Take a look at Interface’s story – one of the pioneers in this field. The business case is emerging: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimate the full potential of the circular economy to be as much as USD 700 billion in global consumer goods materials savings alone. 

So far, so interesting. But then combine that vision with another – to stimulate local manufacturing and entrepreneurship. This is exactly what Ecover, the green cleaning products company, are experimenting with in their ‘Glocal’ pilot, in partnership with Forum for the Future

The name comes from mashing up global with local: because it aims to brings the might of this company’s global R&D capacity to bear on a small island, with its own unique materials, culture and challenges. 

Mallorca

Glocal is centred on Mallorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Mallorca’s economy is dominated by tourism – at high season, Ecover say that the island can host one million guests in its 500,000 rooms.

With each room using around 4kg of bedclothes and towels, that means a lot of laundry products. On the environmental side, many laundry and cleaning products contain phosphates and other compounds containing phosphorous, which when released in high levels into rivers, lakes and seas can create algae blooms which can kill off fish and marine life.

And there’s a social issue too: Mallorca, just like the rest of Spain, has been suffering from high levels of unemployment and like many tourism hotspots has issues with seasonality. 

So the innovation question for Ecover is: how can we develop cleaning products that don’t damage the Mallorcin environment, that are derived from Mallorcin waste streams, and that are produced in partnership with Mallorcin people and businesses?

Mallorca is also an agricultural island and produces, among other things, oranges, olives and wine. Ecover already use orange essence in their products, so the idea is that the waste streams from these existing local activities could potentially become the raw materials for new ones. 

Orange peel

And rather than this happening hundreds or thousands of miles away, the idea is that the manufacturing could take place on the island and be driven by Mallorcin entrepreneurs and businesses.

They’re even exploring the possibility of using satellites to help them map the raw materials and understand the optimal times to harvest them.

Essentially, it seems they’re trying to build a business model inspired by organic ecosystems – one that is interconnected, and hums with local vibrancy and feedback. 

I think this is what’s most interesting about Glocal. It’s interesting to see a big, established company (albeit with strong sustainability credentials) investing in what is essentially an experiment.

The thinking and results are still emerging – there’s a chance that all this may amount to nothing. 

But that is the nature of genuine innovation – especially when it is trying to address big, complex challenges. We know that most new products fail – according to Nielsen, around 80% of products built in 2012 failed. And most ‘breakthrough’ ideas fail too – i.e. ideas that are genuinely new, not just incremental or “me too” products. Check out this great talk by Google Senior Engineer Patrick Copeland which explores innovation. That’s why the concept of ‘agility’ is a popular one in innovation circles – the idea that we need to experiment and prototype frequently, fail fast and fail again in order to get just a few good ideas to market. After all, if we do really want to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our times, we are going to need more, and always bolder, innovation. 

As Goethe put it: 

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

How bold will you be today?

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