Gooder Podcast featuring Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks
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“Everyone has the right to a healthy home.” – Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks
This week on the Gooder Podcast I had the pleasure of talking with Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, the President and CEO at ECOS. We discuss all things ECOS: innovation, leadership, sustainability, and life. We also learn about the trends that have come up in the natural cleaning industry, accelerated due to the pandemic. Along the way, we learn the story of the transformation of a family legacy into a category champion and hear about an innovative leader who advocates for corporate social responsibility and sustainable manufacturing.
In this episode we learn:
- About the family history and legacy of ECOS.
- How far green science has evolved and its impact on product efficacy in home cleaning and personal care.
- Reasons why consumers resist switching from traditional industrial cleaners to more people/planet/pet-friendly cleaning products.
- About product innovation and trends in the natural cleaning industry.
- The behind-the-scenes efforts of developing one of the most disruptive environmentally friendly supply chains and its net-positive impact for consumers pocketbooks.
- How Kelly’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and love inspires a brand that continues to break all the rules on its way to saving the planet.
About Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks:
As President and CEO, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, leads the strategy and production environmentally friendly cleaning products at ECOS. She oversees four geographically diverse facilities across the U.S. as well as a European Manufacturing platform. She has been widely recognized for her highly effective movement, corporate social responsibility, and sustainable manufacturing.
Vlahakis-Hanks has led ECOS to become a Climate Positive company and the first company in the world to achieve the sustainability trifecta of carbon neutrality, water neutrality, and TRUE Platinum Zero Waste certification. Her sustainable business practice has made ECOS a model for green business in the U.S. ECOS is a primary manufacture that has received many awards for its innovations in safer green chemistry, including the U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice Partner of the Year four times.
As an African American woman and the daughter of a Greek immigrant, Vlahakis-Hanks has made environmental and social justice a cornerstone of ECOS’s mission. She actively promotes a corporate culture of diversity and empowerment, ensuring that over 50% of her C-Suite and top executives are women. She supports a green economy by creating sustainable manufacturing jobs across the U.S. and offering strong employee benefits and a living minimum wage of $17 per hour, one of the highest in the industry. She also offers financial incentives to employees who make sustainable living choices such as purchasing a low-emissions vehicle or solar panels.
Vlahakis-Hanks received her undergraduate degree at UCLA and an MBA at Chapman University Argyros School of Business and Economics. She has been featured on CNN, CBS News, FOX News, NBC News, Bloomberg and Marketwatch and in publications such as Fortune, Entrepreneur and the Los Angeles Times. She has received many awards for her sustainable leadership, including Entrepreneur Magazine’s 100 Powerful Women in 2020 and Conscious Company’s World-Changing Women in Conscious Business Award.
She is an active member of several boards, including the Environmental Media Association and the Chapman University Board of Governors, where she serves on the Diversity Task Force. She is active in industry councils and public policy advocacy, including the American Sustainable Business Council and the Companies for Safer Chemicals coalition, working to promote higher standards for consumer products to protect human health and the environment. She is also a member of YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) and Abundance 360, Peter Diamandis’ select community of executives and entrepreneurs using exponential technologies to transform their businesses.
Vlahakis-Hanks resides in southern California with her husband, teenage daughter, and rescue dog Mina.
Guests Social Media Links:
ECOS’ One-Step Disinfectant – Fragrance Free.
ECOSNEXT™ Liquidless Laundry Detergent – Free & Clear.
The University of California, Los Angeles is a public land-grant research university in Los Angeles, California. UCLA traces its early origins back to 1882 as the southern branch of the California State Normal School.
Brown + Dutch was founded in 1996 when Alyson Dutch and her chocolate Labrador Rocky Brown found themselves starting a PR agency, quite by accident.
Walmart Inc. is an American multinational retail corporation that operates a chain of hypermarkets, discount department stores, and grocery stores from the United States, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. The company was founded by Sam Walton in 1962 and incorporated on October 31, 1969.
Sam’s West, Inc. is an American chain of membership-only retail warehouse clubs owned and operated by Walmart Inc., founded in 1983 and named after Walmart founder Sam Walton.
Costco Wholesale Corporation is an American multinational corporation which operates a chain of membership-only big-box retail stores. As of 2020, Costco was the fifth largest retailer in the world, and the world’s largest retailer of choice and prime beef, organic foods, rotisserie chicken, and wine as of 2016.
TerraCycle is a private U.S. recycling business headquartered in Trenton, New Jersey. It primarily runs a volunteer-based recycling platform to collect non-recyclable pre-consumer and post-consumer waste on behalf of corporate donors or municipalities to turn it into raw material to be used in new products.
Whole Foods Market, Inc. is an American multinational supermarket chain headquartered in Austin, Texas, which sells products free from hydrogenated fats and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. A USDA Certified Organic grocer in the United States, the chain is popularly known for its organic selections.
The Environmental Protection Agency is an independent executive agency of the United States federal government tasked with environmental protection matters. President Richard Nixon proposed the establishment of EPA on July 9, 1970; it began operation on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order.
Safer Choice helps consumers, businesses, and purchasers find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment.
Green For All is an organization whose stated goal is to build a green economy while simultaneously lifting citizens out of poverty. It is a DC-based group that brings unions and environmentalists together to push for anti-poverty measures and a clean-energy economy.
The Environmental Media Awards have been awarded by the Environmental Media Association since 1991 to the best television episode or film with an environmental message.
YPO is a global leadership community of chief executives with approximately 29,000 members in more than 130 countries, according to the organization’s 2019 YPO international fact sheet.
Women’s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.
Daniel Pink’s Master Class: Teaches Sales and Persuasion.
Kellogg Garden has operated as a family-owned and operated company. Established in 1925, they have remained a stable, steadfast family business guided by the core values of their founder, H. Clay Kellogg: integrity, innovation, loyalty, experience, commitment, and generosity.
Beyond Green is a Certified B Corp making positive change easier by inspiring everyone to create a sustainable world.
Rivian is an American automaker and automotive technology company founded in 2009. The company develops vehicles, products and services related to sustainable transportation.
Publix was founded in 1930 in Winter Haven, Florida, by George W. Jenkins. Their mission is to be the premier quality food retailer in the world.
Diana Fryc: Hi, welcome to the Gooder podcast, I am your host, Diana Fryc. As partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning branding agency, I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry food and beverage, wellness, fitness, etcetera. As such, I decided to create the Gooder podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts have them share their thoughts, insights and expertize to help businesses all around the world become gooder.
I am very excited to introduce my guest today; Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks is president and CEO of ECOS, a brand that manufactures environmentally friendly cleaning products. She has been widely recognized for her highly effective leadership and her influential voice in the Green Movement, corporate social responsibility and sustainable manufacturing. Kelly has led ECOS to become a climate positive company and the first company in the world to achieve the sustainability trifecta of carbon neutrality, water neutrality and true platinum zero waste certifications. She is an active member of several public and private organizations tackling environmental leadership, diversity, business, sustainability and manufacturing initiatives. And under Kelly’s leadership, she is actively promoting a corporate culture of diversity, empowerment, as well as develop some of the strongest employment and compensation practices in the industry.
Woohoo! You are one busy human welcome, Kelly.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Thank you, Diana. Thank you for that beautiful introduction. It’s so wonderful to be with you on Gooder here today.
Diana Fryc: Thank you. How’s California? You’re in California today?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: I am in California. So our corporate headquarters are just about an hour south of Los Angeles. And I must say it’s a lovely day to day here. The weather is beautiful and it’s great to be outside and there’s just a sense of a lot of optimism and hope in the air.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, right. I’m glad to hear that. I’m so happy to hear that.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Yes.
Diana Fryc: Yes, I am really as I mentioned before, we started recording, really thrilled to have this opportunity to share about what you’re doing with ECOS and how through your brand you are leading this green cleaned and household care. But before we go down that road, would you be willing to share a little about ECOS and the brand? What is the brand and why it exists and maybe even a little history?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Absolutely. Well, thank you. It’s my favorite thing to talk about. So our company was actually started in 1967 by my father, who was a passionate visionary man, came to this country from Greece, $23 in his pocket, hit on a ship. Unbelievable story, lived in homeless shelters, went on Roosevelt University to study Chemistry and started our company in his garage. And at the time he was really alarmed by all of the toxic ingredients we’re putting in cleaning products.
He was reading books like Rachel Carson Silent Spring, and he was thinking back to his childhood of how his mother had utilized vinegar and lemon and so many natural ingredients to clean their home and he couldn’t understand why we were using so many toxic chemicals here. So we started our company back then. And certainly over the first 30, 40 years, consumers had not woken up to that fact and so it’s really unbelievable. It’s just really the last 10 or 15 years that you really see consumers finally understanding the importance of going green in terms of their cleaning routines. Since that time, our ECOS laundry detergent has become the top selling green laundry detergent in the United States.
We have four geographically diverse manufacturing facilities and as you pointed out, all our carbon neutral, water neutral and zero waste and I’m super proud to announce there’ll be a press release tomorrow about the fact that we’re the first climate positive manufacturer in the nation. So going beyond just sustainability to actually regeneration and replenishing the resources in our planet. We have 200 products under our ECOS brand.
So our laundry, our dish, our All-Purpose Cleaners, we have an entire line of products. We have a wonderful partnership with the Walt Disney Company and we do a line of Disney baby ECOS products. It’s so important to protect your little ones and then we have an institutional and industrial use line as well for homes and hospitals and schools and we really are looking at greening your cleaning and all aspects of your life;
Because you spend so much time indoors and it’s important that we have a healthy environment in which to thrive.
Diana Fryc: Yes, and I know I mentioned this before; we have a number of products in our house so familiar with the brand from way back in the day. Actually, when I was in college, I used to clean houses to make money and the first time I was exposed to green cleaning was a woman who had environmental allergies and this was in the 90s. And so I started working with cleaning products all the way back then.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Oh, I’m glad that you made that switch so long ago. You certainly were ahead of so many people and it’s so important because we now know definitively so many of the ingredients in cleaning products are linked to cancer and asthma, nerve and organ damage and people need to look at cleaning products just like they look at their food.
Diana Fryc: Sure. Well, let’s talk a little bit about like you; so family business, okay we all know transitional leadership sometimes doesn’t work, but in this particular instance when you came back into the organization, was awesome acceleration in the brand and growth and that might be my misunderstanding. But you’ve not always been in the business. You came back into the business and since things have accelerated, first I’d like to know what brought you back?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Well, first of all, so I would say this, I grew up working in various roles in the family business. I was really lucky at an early age to have exposure and then I went on to go to UCLA. I did my undergraduate degree at UCLA and after graduating from UCLA, I spent five years working for others because I think it’s extremely important when you join a family business, you have to spend some time working for other organizations to hone your skills. And for me, I had a wonderful opportunity to work for great PR firm Brown and Dutch public relations and move on to handle global PR for a swimwear company and do some other things.
So when I joined the family business in 2003 and I’ve been here ever since for the last almost 18 years, I really recognized that we had never told our story and a powerful and compelling way to our consumer or our retailer and we hadn’t pursued a lot of the conventional retailers. And so throughout these 18 years, I had a chance to work on all different aspects of the business. But storytelling and messaging and really sharing the authenticity of who we are was extremely important to me. I consider it a great privilege to lead a company that’s socially and environmentally responsible and I want our consumers to know that about us, that we authentically walk the walk, that I’m not just the company that has a bunch of toxic cleaners and suddenly a green portfolio. I only make green products and we only do it in a sustainable fashion and so it’s been a great trajectory with our family business.
And unfortunately, we lost my father in 2014, but certainly his vision and his mission lives on, and in the last seven years, as you mentioned, we’ve had significant growth when after his passing I rebranded the entire line under the ECOS name because ECOS could just be the laundry detergent and we had full equity in the laundry and wanted to make sure consumers knew what a vast array of products that we had. So we rebranded under the ECOS name and really went after conventional retailers. So at ECOS our promise is to make a green product that’s affordable. We want to be opening price point. We never want people to walk into the store and feel like they have to pay up for green or just for the affluent. Green is for everyone. Everyone has the right to a healthy home and so we’ve expanded our partnerships with great retailers like Walmart and Sam’s and Costco and you name it and it’s been great to see the growth and it’s been great to see the consumer’s reception of our ECOS promise.
Diana Fryc: That’s awesome. Well, let’s talk about cleaning and cleaning trends. It’s probably it’s this last year, of course, is with Covid coming around cleaning. Cleaning in general has just this top of mind and there’s probably a lot of consumer shifting back and forth. I heard that at the very beginning, natural products kind of took a little bit of a hit because people wanted, like the hardcore kill everything and then it switched again at some point. Let’s first talk about what trends are you seeing now?
We’ve all been living with Covid for a year. What are people looking for? What are the opportunities or what are the outages that Covid exposed and what are those impacts that you’re seeing ECOS?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Absolutely Diana! There was nothing more important than cleaning. Cleaning products are the number one weapon in the war on Covid certainly up until the vaccinations and other things; it was our only and our best way out. And so I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget March 16th of 2020 orders came in at eight times their normal ordering patterns, and people would go rushing stores and really trying to hoard cleaning products. And I must say, I’m so proud of the work that our teams did during those days because Diana, as the world shut down, our teams revved up and we added a second shift and we added a third shift and we could never close because there was such a global need for cleaning products to protect human health.
And I would say that it was really important at that time to do a lot of education with our consumers to talk about, “Hey, what is the CDC saying?” And if you went to the CDC website, it clearly said step one clean, step two disinfect. I really tried to explain to people don’t just disinfect everything constantly first clean, because cleaning is actually the way you remove the pathogens, the viruses, the dirt, and that active removal is the most important first step. And so I encourage people to clean and clean your surfaces. Disinfecting needed to be for frequently trafficked places like door handle to other things.
But you did not need to be disinfecting the inside of your home 24/7. And so it’s really important to talk to our consumers about that. Just clean, and washing your hands. Far more important to use a hypoallergenic plant based cleaning product to wash your hands than plenty of toxic sanitizers constantly on your hands. So you wash your hands for 20 seconds and we saw all of those videos last year encouraging that. That’s how you actually would get rid of it. And when you look at the covid-19 virus, it had an envelope around it and so the soap actually penetrates the envelope and disperses the virus.
So this is really effective to just use a simple plant powered soap to do the job. And then obviously hand sanitizers are critical when you can’t wash your hands. So you’re somewhere and you can’t get it. Totally understand it. But one of my concerns when Covid hit is that the pendulum would swing too far and that people would be so focused on kill claims and this and that they wouldn’t think about the effect to their human health. Because when you’re constantly in that mode, we too are living organisms. We don’t want to have products like that on our bodies 24/7 and so a lot of education. Certainly we saw a significant increase in a lot of our work at home retail products like hand soap and dishwashers. More people were at home. They’re washing their dishes at home and fortunately, our consumers understood that our products did the job and kept them safe. Diana, I can tell you, I had a personal experience. My teenage daughter ended up getting Covid.
Diana Fryc: Oh my goodness.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: We could try to figure out how it happened and we’re not sure if it was a visit from the pediatricians or what transpired. But fortunately, she did very well. She’s young and had no significant issues. But I’m someone that has asthma and I really wanted to make sure to protect our family and I can tell you, nobody else in our household got Covid. And what did we do? We cleaned with ECOS; I didn’t bring anything else into our home. We just kept our home clean, as we always do. We made some powerful decisions around mask wearing and it worked and it’s extremely effective. So I think that even when I was faced with a situation where it was so close, we were all able to stay safe and stop the spread of the virus and we never needed to bring anything more than our brand.
Diana Fryc: Did you find that you saw an interest in product that you had maybe not considered to be — there’s the 80/20 rule, of course, in business, which 20% of your product sell more than the 80%. Did you see a shift because of Covid or did you see any opportunities to create something new because of Covid? If you’re in innovation now, you can’t really necessary talk about it. But did you kind of go, “Oh, my goodness, yes, there’s a handful of products that are coming out?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: In 2020, we did launch a disinfectant;
A disinfectant that utilized hydrogen peroxide because we recognized that the consumers were hungry for a safer disinfectant, how could they use a disinfectant in their homes and around their families that wasn’t so detrimental to human and planetary health? And so we launched our ECOS one step disinfectant. It hit the market in November of 2020 and is now available to everyone. And certainly that was something we added to our portfolio and I believe that something important for the years to as we make our way out of this global pandemic, we always have to think of safer chemistries, safer ways of doing things and answering the call for people to have a safer option. We saw typically our business is largely skewed towards laundry. That’s our most successful offering. But certainly we saw people switch to all-purpose cleaners and hand soap and dish products and upticks in those areas and we also launched a lot of things that were plastic free.
One of our biggest concerns as well with the Covid crisis is people started consuming more plastic that’s why we had tried to reverse that trend. People started wanting everything disposable, everything throwaway, everything single use and so a lot of the work that we’ve been doing up until then had kind of gone out the window.
And so our innovation teams, one of the things we launched was our ECOS next laundry detergent. It’s a free option and it’s kind of fun because rather than a liquid laundry, it’s just a sheet. You have this one little compact sheet, it’s also liquid sheet. So no need for water, no need for plastic to hold it and if you wanted to do a smaller load or you wanted to do one piece, you could use whatever product necessary. You could also carry it with you’re traveling and so that was a really fun thing that we did and a few other plastic initiatives.
We partnered with TerraCycle with their loop program; the milkman, Diana, where they pick up the bottle and we refill it and they redeliver to the consumer and so that was a fun partnership. And then we also launched last year our Mother and Child Initiative, which is a refill package that has no shrink wrap. You could find it at Whole Foods and lots of retailers where you can refill the child four or five times without having to have additional trigger sprayers and other plastic products.
Diana Fryc: Oh, I love that and that’s kind of some of the questions that I want to talk about; green cleaning for the natural’s audience, which is right now predominantly Caucasian, well-to-do, has easy access, it kind of has a different outside of our bubble, I’ll call it the natural bubble. Natural cleaners has some preconceived conditions that maybe have been maybe were true 20 years ago, but not true anymore because of green chemistry and so I kind of want to talk about those things. The first thing you’ve already kind of touched on is plastic, the plastic usage, and you’re already addressing some of these initiatives where we’re trying to remove it. And we’ve got a whole supply chain, though. I it’d be interesting for people to understand how you handle manufacturing in your supply chain from product to consumer. We get the consumer facing side. But what are you doing on the back side that’s also kind of shortening and cleaning up and making that footprint smaller?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Absolutely. Well, I can tell you this, we have an amazing VP of sustainability Dr. Nadereh who helms that area for us and what an unbelievable woman. This woman has two PhDs in Life-cycle analysis and in education, and I would show up at work and she’d be in the trash bin and she’d have a plastic water bottle in her hand and she’d be policing the facilities to figure out who did it? Who did this? It takes that passion and that kind of enthusiasm to really move the needle.
And so we began with educating everyone in our ECOS family internally and making sure that we were all the best eco stewards of our planet that we could individually be. Make sure that we made better choices so that we could hit our zero waste initiative. And then after that, it was taking a step back and as you said, Diana, looking into the supply chain, if people want to partner with us and want to be our suppliers, we want to take a look at the life cycle analysis of the products they’re supplying us with and we want to make sure that they also are walking the same sustainability journey that we are and we understand it’s a journey. We understand it’s not overnight.
We need partners that we’re committed to progressing with us in order to be carbon neutral, in order to be climate positive, we needed a supply chain that gave us that strength and that power to be able to do what we needed to do. And so all of our suppliers get sustainability questionnaires from us, we have active sustainability audits where we go out into our supply network and we check our suppliers and we make sure that they’re compliant with those objectives. We’ve got a lot of supply chain transparency. I myself have traveled to the lavender fields to harvest the lavender, to follow it through the steam distillation and write the combines for the harvest so that we can ensure that we have the cleanest and greenest ingredients, so that I’d have a relationship with the farmers. Or traveled to the coconut plantations and figure out ways that we could create zero waste Coconut plantations is something we’re working on right now. It’s an initiative that my VP of Sustainability is helming and looking at hey we use the inside cobra or the white fruit. What can we do with the exterior? So thinking outside of the box and thinking in an innovative way, because to be a successful business, you must answer the greatest crises that we face as a civilization and this is one of them. And so that’s some of the things that we’re doing.
We also have these four geographically diverse manufacturing facilities. And rather than the sourcing at a national level or sourcing with local suppliers, if I’m here in California, I’m getting my boxes from here in California. If I’m in New Jersey, I’m getting them from New Jersey to California and Washington and Illinois and New Jersey. So trying to always source within a 500 mile radius of our facilities so we’re reducing our shipping costs and the emissions. So they go hand in hand and that’s really important. We want to let businesses know that everyone says, “Oh, it’s sustainability is bad for the bottom line.” It’s good for the bottom line. When you ship less distances, when you use less packaging, when you make better decisions, it’s not bad for the bottom line. You just have to think about it differently.
Diana Fryc: Okay, well, along that line, you’ve already shown this product. But there’s a kind of underground movement by these smaller internal baby brands. I call them the baby brands moving away from liquids in general. You’ve shown this sheet. Is this kind of the future? Do you see this is where cleaning products are going, at least for those brands that wanting to have that kind of environmental footprint is moving into dry, I don’t know what do you call that process? I’m curious what goes into it?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: It’s dehydrated. It’s a dehydrated laundry detergent. And you know Diana, I think there’s many different ways in which we can answer the call, right?
Diana Fryc: Sure.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Some people are using packs and people are using pods and people are using kits. Powders are a little tricky and I just want to make sure that, many years ago we got rid of powdered laundries because they were using salt as filler. We don’t want to be dumping salt into the waterways. So I want to make sure as we dehydrate, we do it in a responsible matter because the wonderful thing about a liquid product, versus let’s say a powdered laundry is that with a liquid laundry, it’s gray water safe. It’s septic safe. I use it. I reclaim my water and use it to water my yard and do other things right.
So as we kind of navigate the terrain, we don’t want to trade off one thing for something that might have more negative impacts. And then the plastics industry, there’s a lot of innovation in terms of greener plastics and using sugarcane and bio based things and so I think with the beauty of green science is that innovation is continuous and it’s pressing forward, and I think that we’ll see over the next 5 to 10 years unbelievable changes and the way we can do our cleaning and continue to be greener and cleaner in every step of the way.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, the idea of green science, we’re seeing so much on the food and beverage front we’re seeing so much movement in science. A lot of food tech and what we’re able to do with plant technology is so fascinating to me. And I wonder, with science the way it is now, are we just simply able to get more out of plants and that’s why we’re kind of seeing this increase in efficacy. The green cleaning products are stronger now than they were 30 years ago, that’s just going to be a fascinating journey right there.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: You’re absolutely right Diana. Listen, consumers have so much power. When we think about it, what they demand is what businesses will create and the science is driven by consumer demand and the fact that consumers are demanding plant powered alternatives, the fact that they want a healthier option on the shelves of their retailers is compelling and providing the funding and the impetus for scientists to be pursuing these activities. And it’s unbelievable the evolution that we’ve seen in green science over the years. You talk about efficacy. I’ll just show you this is one of the things that consumers can look for. So you see that the safer choice logo. Yes. So the Safer Choice logo is on all of our products and we have a partnership with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to get that logo. But the important thing about the Safer Choice logo is it looks at three things. Number one, are you using the greenest ingredients available in the class? Number two, are you innovating in terms of green science?
And number three, is the product efficacious? Does it work? And I think that’s one of the beauties of the Safer Choice logo, is that when consumers look at it, they can know, hey, they’re using the greatest ingredients, but the product is efficacious. It works. It does what it says it will do. And that’s really important in combating that longstanding kind of belief that green products don’t work or they’re not efficacious. They’re absolutely as efficacious as their toxic counterparts and they do just as good of a job. So we have to get rid of what was 30 years ago and really look at what is now possible with science and all of our efficacy scores are on par with our conventional counterparts yet we don’t have the toxic effects that they have on an individual’s health or the environment. So I think that consumers have more access to information ever than before with their cell phones, Google it, they can research it, and they have a lot of power in their hands.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, you know what, incidentally, I am listening to Daniel Pink on Master Class right now, and he is talking about the power of a buyer just in general, and how the information, the power exchange has shifted where marketers used to have all the power. Now the consumers have all the power. And so if you’re into a master class, I would recommend that it is very much in my mind right now on how that works, I’m a fan of master classes.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: But it’s so great, it’s so great.
Diana Fryc: So along the lines, we talked about this a little bit about the hardcore cleaners, the industrial cleaners, I know that’s not the right term. What do you feel is the hesitancy now like we’ve seen conversion? I’m not exactly sure how it necessarily went, like during Covid, but we’re over here now. We’re here in today, what hesitancy or what are you seeing in the market, people who are still hands distance? Is it still a pricing thing? Is it an education thing? What are we seeing that doesn’t have people converting and opting in yet?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: So for our brand, I would say it’s education and brand awareness. We’re in a highly competitive category with a lot of large conglomerates that have deep pockets and are outspending smaller family on brands like ours. And so a lot of it is happening in the advertising space, where consumers are just being bombarded with ads from a lot of these large conglomerates. And they’re being filled with the ideas that you can trust brands that aren’t trustworthy. And so I think for us, the most important thing is to focus on education and brand awareness. In terms of price points, we have answered the call to have an affordable green product.
So if you walk into your Costco, you’ll see our ECOS 210 ounce at 12.99. Our conventional counterpart might be at $21. So we’re not asking the consumer to pay up for green. That’s why we’re so proud to make it ourselves. We make the products ourselves. We control our costs. We sell them directly to our retail partners and make sure that the consumers have the best value. So really now it’s a lot about awareness. I think there’s a lot of people that think about organic foods and what they eat, and they’re starting to think about personal care products, what they put on their skins. But they still haven’t thought, hey, my laundry detergent leaves a residue and that residues absorb quicker through our skin than what we put into our mouth.
It’s important what that residue is or if you have your plates or glasses, you’re drinking out of your cup. If you wash your cup and something that’s costing that has skulls and crossbones and says, “Do not ingest,” yet every single day you’re ingesting it, you’re putting your mouth on and you’re putting your water in it and your coffee in it, you’re consuming that. And what we’re seeing is the cumulative effect is extremely detrimental to human health. And it’s unbelievable, Diana, but as I sit here in 2021, the United States has very little regulations around cleaning products. There is no FDA. There is nobody policing what we put into cleaning products. You can put anything you want into the bottle and sell it to the consumer.
And unfortunately, the consumer believes that if a product is in a store, someone has checked it. No one has checked cleaning products and they know that. And that’s why I fought so hard for the cleaning products right to know act because I said, “Hey listen, if we’re not going to regulate what goes into the product, let’s at least demand that the ingredients be listed so that the consumers have the right to make an informed decision.” And so that law went into effect in October of 2017 in California. This year, in January of 2021, cleaning products must disclose their ingredients. And I’m so thrilled with that because at least now the consumer can go in the store, they can look at the back label and they can see what’s in it and they can finally understand what they’re buying and bringing into their home because before you call, I mean, I listened when parents were calling in to the poison control centers when their children had ingested one of the brands cleaning products, and they were asking, “Please, please help me.”
And Poison Control was saying, “What’s in it, what’s in it?” And they were going, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” It is unbelievable. Children lost their lives because parents couldn’t provide information to Poison Control. We shouldn’t tolerate these things as a nation. We just shouldn’t and especially because Europe and Asia and others are so far ahead of us. We shouldn’t let this continue.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. I remember it was big news for a while there. It sounds to me like no longer the exciting, I think there was a lot of education. But you’re right. Especially in our industry, in the natural space, we talk about that Trents products are ingredient DECT transparency and it’s good to see it move and that we from the natural space, can influence the conventional space. I get it. There’s brands for everybody. Conventional is never going to go away. It’s going to exist. But if we can influence it to be better, then let’s do that. And so I’d love seeing that coming from ECOS. I think that’s great.
I Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Thank you. And I certainly am going to continue to fight for it now at a national level. I truly believe if companies have to make one label for California, the rest of our nation deserves this new label.
Diana Fryc: Come on now. Easy, easy, right?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Very easy.
Diana Fryc: Yes. Well, so along that line, we’re talking about accessibility and education. I want to talk a little bit about representation and accessibility when we’re looking at these products. Again, naturals are still predominantly Caucasian driven industry, women with a disproportionate say on what a natural and healthy lifestyle is. How is that brand like ECOS making sure that we’re reaching into those communities that typically haven’t been spoken to or don’t see themselves as being represented in the work that brands like you are doing? What initiatives are you guys using to get into those communities and share?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Well, Diana, thank you for that question. So first of all, I’m African-American and Greek, so I have a mixed background. African-American mother, Greek father and I’m super proud to be not just a woman owned business, to be a black owned business. And I think we need more black women, leading companies all around our nation. But I’m certainly proud to do it in the cleaning products space. And I’ve built an extremely diverse leadership team. So if you look at our team, more than 50% of my C suite is comprised of women, more than 75% of my technical team ethnically diverse, diverse in terms of gender, diverse in terms of opinions. And it’s really important to have diverse and inclusive leadership teams, the decision makers, because you cannot serve your consumers if you don’t understand the needs of your consumers. And if your leadership team is not diverse, it will never truly reflect that of your audience.
And so I think what we’ve done differently here at ECOS is we’ve really built a company that’s representative of the consumers we serve. And we’ve embarked on all sorts of wonderful partnerships. So this Earth Month, which will kick off tomorrow, we’ve partnered with Green for All. So Green for All is a wonderful organization, originally founded by Van Jones looking to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. And they’ve been a wonderful partner of ours for years. And our campaign this year will be around just clean, a justice clean, a clean for all and a green for all and really talking about addressing environmental justice. It’s extremely important.
Last year when Black Lives Matter took place, we had a wonderful team member who used to intern with us, who went on to Patagonia and to some other companies. Leah is her name, and I’ll never forget her posting Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter. And it went viral. And it was so exciting to see her develop this intersectional environmentalist platform, give the green community stronger connectivity to communities that have not been adequately represented. And so it’s really nice to see that happening on a lot of friends. And we’ve certainly been partnering with a lot of different influencers. Black girl environmentalists is something we’re doing all month long to different black girl environmentalists in the space and really just trying to engage everyone in this conversation because we all need a healthy, shared planet.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, I love that. As part of this Gooder initiative that I’m doing, I’m trying to keep to at least 50% women of color or disabled women or LGBT and increase the diversity, because I honestly feel like, sometimes if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. So I’m like, “Okay, let’s make sure that we’re elevating everybody.” But if my goal personally is to help make a societal shift and make sure that we’re including everybody in the conversation, I need to have that visibility and we need to share stories like yours. So love that you’re starting internally, that it’s not a marketing initiative, this is something that you guys are doing internally because that’s what you do and that’s what you stand for. And it’s awesome.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Thank you, Diana. And everything should be from the inside out. I mean, that’s the way it has to be done. If it’s real, if it’s authentic, and the beautiful thing now is that consumers want transparency in businesses. They want to look behind the veil. They want to understand who is leading companies that want to use their dollars to vote for brands that are aligned with their values. And I really feel, if you’re a company like ours and our mission is to protect people and the planet, protecting people on the planet goes beyond just cleaning products. It has to be holistically addressed.
Diana Fryc: Yes. I agree 100%. We have tackled some really big issues today, and a lot of them. So, let’s save something for the next guy I guess. I want to just kind of ask a little bit, maybe some more fun things. I don’t know. You’ve been through the business for a while. You were in between when you were originally ECOS and your time away and then you come back. I’m sure you’ve had a couple of aha moments. Like, I can’t like maybe pinch myself. I can’t believe this is happening or holy cow, I can’t believe I just did that. I’ll never do that again. Anything you care to share that any one moment that you’re like yeah, I would love to share this with people.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Oh my goodness. I mean, through the years there’s been so many moments like that, good or bad, all sorts of things. I think, last year, 2020 was certainly a pivotal year for me as a leader, leading during a very challenging time. I have to tell you, my team members are essential workers. I mean, they demonstrated the highest levels of patriotism rising up when their country needed them. And I think so often we don’t realize it. And it was a beautiful thing to see the country celebrate all the people behind the scenes in the workforce’s. But I think a moment for me, I mean, I was just so proud coming to work, seeing our teams rally.
And Diana, those things, they don’t happen overnight. You have to build a culture of care, a culture of passion, a culture of connectivity to be able in the toughest and most adverse times to come together and to pull together. We could never have accomplished what we did last year without every single member of ECOS coming together. And I think, March and April of last year were so hard. I’m operating in four states with four different rules and four different things. And people showed up in ways I would have never expected. I had sales team members working production lines. I had people on my strategy team coming in to run nightshifts. It was so beautiful and so moving. And it was one of those moments. It just filled me with so much pride because it almost brings me to tears.
I’ll never forget seeing, someone had sent me a video of an assistant chemist in my Washington facility. Her name is Kristen and she was in on a Saturday and she was rallying up the teams on the production lines. And you just saw leaders come out of the woodwork with such strength and such passion. And that was when I really sat and recognized, like we really did it. We built the kind of company we wanted to be. And it’s as real and it’s as powerful and as loving and as heartfelt as I could have ever dreamed in my life. And that was a beautiful thing to see. And really when you build a culture like that as a business, you have to understand that people are the most important part of it.
And I hear too often business leaders talking about bottom line and finances. Listen, financial health is critically important. So, Diana, that’s absolutely imperative. But your people are your most important resource and investing in them, paying fair wages. We took our minimum wage to $17 an hour back in 2014. And at the time I remember everybody said, “Oh, $17 an hour. How can you do that?” How can you not do that? How can you not have fair wages? Because in the end of the day, if you don’t care about your team members, they will never care about you. It’s going to be a relationship of reciprocity. And we put in lots of things like PPO insurance for everybody and making sure that we get paid maternity and paid paternity and all sorts of great initiatives. If you’ve got a solar vehicle, you’ve got solar panels, you’ve got $2500. If you’ve got a green vehicle, you’ve got $2500. If you relocated within a ten mile radius of the facility so you weren’t commuting, you got a bonus and just trying to do things to really honor our ECOS team.
And yeah, last year is something that as a leader I always feel very proud about what our team did. And I also feel proud about the fact that they kept one another safe. I mean, it really worked Diana, six foot distancing, facemasks and cleaning routines. And so, we were able to keep everybody safe in our facilities and have a safe environment to come to work too. And that was their work and their hard efforts that made it happen.
Diana Fryc: Well, Kelly, I mean, as a leader, this kind of business and this kind of team, working together comes from the top down. So this is not only a testament of who you are as a leader, but a legacy. You’re living the legacy of what your parents and your father have started. I’m sure that both your parents are proud of you wherever they are. So I think as a leader, to the people who are listening right now can kind of go you can be holistic in your thinking and leadership. It doesn’t have to be dogmatic in any way, shape or form. And doing good is the best way to build a successful brand. I’m trying to not be gobsmacked. I’m trying to like, okay, keep talking Diana, keep talking. Unbelievable work that you are doing there. And the legacy that you’re continuing to build for your family is pretty awesome.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Thank you, Diana. I think that businesses we need to just recognize and realize that we have to champion change. We can’t wait for others to do it. We need to take the reins. We need to build the kind of world we want our children to live in and the kind of world we want our grandchildren to live in. And businesses have a lot of power in our society to profoundly affect change and to implement it quickly. And if we wait for government or we wait for someone else to do it, it takes a lot of time.
Sometimes we don’t have that time. The clock is ticking. And so we need as businesses to really rally together and to do something profoundly different.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of this. Before we wrap up, I always have a few questions. And I so want to have a beverage with you at some point and just talk more.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: I can’t wait to have this too. Yes, you’ll have to come by.
Diana Fryc: You’ve already shared so much, but maybe you have, like, a little bit of I like to call it a happy hour factoid tidbit, like the most number of, I don’t know. I don’t know what it might be, but maybe you have something kind of fun to share with people, either about your business or about green chemistry or anything that we’ve talked about.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: In terms of things to kind of just share with people, I would say to them, read the labels. Number one, if there’s one thing you do after today, read the labels just like you would read your food products. Know the ingredients that are in your cleaning products and understand they affect your health. Know the fact that, in 1970, when the EPA was created, 82,000 chemicals were grandfathered in and never checked for human health and safety. And those 82,000 chemicals are in commerce today. And in 2016, when they passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, they said they would check ten a year, like just imagine ten a year. And when they came out with that first list of ten, no one was asbestos. Who doesn’t know asbestos isn’t bad for us. Do we need to spend all year studying that?
So really, really, if I could say anything, understand these chemicals are everywhere. Understand they’re affecting your health and understand that you need to be informed and you need to take the power. No one else is going to check these things for you. So as we come up to Earth Day on April 22nd and as we celebrate the 52nd anniversary of it, and I’m super proud that we’re 54 years old, so we’re two years older than Earth Day, but as we celebrate it, really try and make a resolution to think about health and wellness and to add cleaning into that kind of thought process to make sure that it’s food, it’s personal care and it’s cleaning products. Indoor air quality is five to 70 times more polluted than outdoors. And we can control that by the cleaning products we select to bring in our home. So let’s all make better decisions together.
Diana Fryc: Okay, well, along that line, leadership and making better decisions. I don’t know if this is a good transition or not, but are there any women leaders or women rising stars out there that you would just like to elevate publicly or publicly admire or crush on?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: I will tell you, there’s so many amazing women leaders working in that green space. I had the chance a few years ago at the Environmental Media Awards to speak on a panel called The Age of Transparency. And I spoke on it with Kathy Kellogg of Kellogg Organics. And I spoke on it with Greg Renfrew, who is the CEO of Beautycounter, and I’ll never forget how much I loved Beautycounter myself because I can see ingredients deck, I myself have a histamine intolerance. And so I have a problem with Benzoate. And I was having such a hard time determining what makeup products had Benzoate. And Greg’s line of products, you just go into their transparent list and I can quickly see who had sodium Benzoate and how could I avoid that so that I wouldn’t create this histamine response.
I’m in YPO, the Young President’s Organization and in my chapter I have six amazing women who are in my chapter also doing amazing things. One of my fellow chapter mates, Lindsay Ueberroth, just started Beyond Green and her travel. And it’s so beautiful to see Beyond Green and sustainable tourism and how people can travel with little impact on the earth. And so I have another woman in my YPO chapter, Laura Schwab, who just joined Rivian, the all electric vehicles that are amazing. So she was the first woman ever to be president of Aston Martin and then left to join the all electric vehicle Rivian. So there’s women doing amazing things all across the board. And it’s exciting to see what we will all collectively bring to the table to answer the call, to really make sure that we protect this earth.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. Any brands or trends that you are keeping your eyeballs on just because they interest you?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Well, I have to say, I mean, as a black woman and as a leader of our company, I could not have been more excited to see the great love and support of buying black owned brands this year. And so, there were things like the 15% pledge that came about asking retailers to make sure that, hey, listen, 15% of our population is African-American. We want 15% of the brands on your shelf be black owned companies. And so I just love that. I love consumers rising up and asking our retailers and our partners to carry diverse brands and to applaud those brands. Super exciting. I was in Publix recently and they carry our brands and they had put beautiful shelf talkers that said made by her on all of their shelves in honor of Women’s History Month, that I love seeing that, too. And I think we’re getting to a place where people are really focused on having diverse leaders. And the only way to get it done is to have the consumers rise up and say, “Hey, listen, we want more diversity in the marketplace. We want more successful businesses with diverse leadership in place. And we’re prepared to support those leaders. And we want retailers to walk with us on that journey.”
Diana Fryc: Awesome. Well, before we go, maybe one thing that you do to keep yourself sane during all, like you are involved in so much. So maybe that is your sanity. But I’ll ask that question anyways. How are you keeping yourself sane these days?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: I’ll tell you, getting out in nature is my favorite thing to do, oftentimes with my daughter, whether it’s a hiking, bike riding and most importantly, I love swimming in the ocean. So I would say that just being in nature and appreciating this earth and it inspires me. It excites me. It invigorates me. It replenishes me. It allows me to have the strength to get up the next day and do the work that we need to do and to be connected to why we do it. And so I would encourage people there was a study done that said that, prisoners get one hour every day outside and that children were actually getting less than that one hour a day outside.
And it was shocking to me how prisoners would be getting more time outside than our children. But I think in our urge to protect them, people brought them home and now they are on video games and their cell phone, and they don’t want them to play outside because something bad could happen. But we need to remember that we all need fresh air. We all need to run through the trees and the grass, and we just need to experience nature. It’s important for our soul and it’s important for our physical health. For me, it’s important to reduce the amount of stress and to just feel joy. And so I think it’s really critical to do that. And it’s free. It doesn’t cost anything.
Diana Fryc: Who knew that you could do something for free?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: It’s free.
Diana Fryc: Well, if people wanted to connect with you for some reason, is there a best channel?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Yes. I’m on social media. So, Kelly from ECOS. So, you go on to Instagram and you follow me and Kelly from ECOS, if you want to direct message me, I write back to all of those things. Of course our website is ecos.com. If you want to learn more, we’re actually launching for Earth Month, a brand new digital home, and I can’t wait for everyone to see that space.
Diana Fryc: Excellent. Well, Miss Kelly, thank you so much, not only for your time, but for the good works that you’re doing for us all. I feel like it’s pandering to, say you rock, but that’s like my way of saying I love what you’re doing with your home, your family community and your brand community. And I really appreciate this time that we’ve had together. Thank you so much.
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: And Diana, thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Thank you for the work you do to highlight business for good. I love the work that you’re doing at Gooder because Business for Good is so important. And thank you for creating a platform to share our stories and to allow us to connect. And I truly appreciate the work you do.
Diana Fryc: Thank you. Well, I look forward to our beverage, hopefully in the next year and until then…
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: I’m waiting for you Diana anytime.
Diana Fryc: And I’m wishing you luck on this new website launched. That will be fun. I’ll be keeping my eyes to the ground or eyes to my screen for that one. How’s that?
Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks: Thank you. Check us out at ecos.com.
Diana Fryc: This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a creative marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your naturals brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network. Until next time, be well and do gooder.