Sustainability and the Art of Congruent Business Values from Eco-CEO Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks
Kermit the Frog may have said, “It’s not easy being green,” but America’s Eco-CEO Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks has made healthy, green home cleaners easy to find and accessible, not just for the eco-elite but for everyone.
As president and CEO of Earth Friendly Products®, her ECOS™ brand has become the #1 selling green laundry detergent in the U.S., and the company’s 200 other environmentally friendly cleaning products are distributed in more than 25,000 retailers in 60 countries. Portrayed by actress Shannon Elizabeth in the Hollywood film titled A Green Story, the Greek-African American entrepreneur has yet to even reach the age of 40.
Not as easy to create, however, was a corporate sustainability ethos that would make a meaningful impact, yet Earth Friendly Products has managed to implement congruence throughout all it does, who it is, and what it produces. From its manufacturing facilities in California, Washington, New Jersey, and Illinois, over 53 million pounds of carbon dioxide are being saved annually, and 95% of all its waste is being diverted from landfills.
Vlahakis-Hanks has made it her personal mission to ensure that these sustainability values trickle throughout every part of the business. “Huge multinational corporations like Unilever and SC Johnson have gobbled up most of the independent green cleaning brands, just as they’ve bought up so many organic food and personal care companies,” shrugs the vibrant CEO, “But we remain family owned and operated, and we’re absolutely committed to our mission of sustainability, to creating green jobs here in the U.S., and to supporting our employees with one of the highest minimum wages in the industry and family-friendly benefits.”
Manufacturing is not an easy area of business to fit into the ecological model, but Vlahakis-Hanks managed to achieve the ”trifecta” of sustainability: carbon neutrality, water neutrality and Platinum-level Zero Waste certification in all four of her facilities. No other company in America can boast that degree of environmental stewardship.
“We see the model of sustainability as something that also includes workplace diversity,” Vlahakis-Hanks explains. As such, she has filled her C-suite and executive team with women of various ethnicities, who lead the company in green chemistry innovation, legal affairs, government relations and, most importantly, sustainability. Vlahakis-Hanks looks to Dr. Nadereh Afsharmanesh, her vice president of sustainability and education, to design and implement the myriad of sustainability programs that have made Earth Friendly Products the leader in green manufacturing.
Within the lexicon of business sustainability, companies manage a “triple bottom line,” which means considering the impacts of environmental, social, and financial decisions. Vlahakis-Hanks sees the legislative process as an important cog in this wheel. “Companies need to make their voices heard,” she says. “You can’t exist in a silo and expect change to happen. Fighting for laws that support sustainable business practices and protect consumers helps everyone in the long run.”
The smart-cookie communications student from UCLA and Chapman University MBA graduate was one of the most prominent voices behind the passing of the “Cleaning Product Right to Know Act” in the state of California (October 2017). Vlahakis-Hanks emphatically describes this new law as historic and following in the footsteps of the food industry, which has been successful in providing ingredient disclosure for consumers. “Many of the chemicals in traditional cleaning products have been definitively linked to asthma, allergies, cancer and other serious health effects,” she says. “Everyone has a right to know what’s in the products they bring into their home.”
Vlahakis-Hanks is proud of the advances her company has made in greening the cleaning products industry. “I grew up immersed in the world of green,” she says, remembering her childhood in Itasca, Illinois. “But green cleaners weren’t easy to find then. For over 50 years, we’ve been very focused on changing that and getting safer, affordable products to consumers. Today, they can find our ECOS products at retailers from Walmart to Whole Foods.”
She also makes giving back to the community a top priority. During its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2017, Earth Friendly Products gave $800,000 to children’s educational programs, Seattle Children’s Hospital, corporate sustainability advocacy, and even the university where Van Vlahakis, the company’s founder, earned his degrees in Chemistry and Social Justice. “To me, being influential in this world has a lot to do with matching our values and actions in every way,” says Vlahakis-Hanks. “It’s not always easy to do, but it’s always been good for us and for the people and communities that we serve.”
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