When it comes to making a sustainable impact in design and business, sometimes it takes looking at the problems many companies overlook. For David Watkins and Dr. Pete He, that arena was laundry. The two founders of a new sustainable laundry detergent brand called Dirty Labs come from completely different corporate backgrounds—Watkins has a history in product design and manufacturing while He has a background in product chemistry—and decided to join forces to see how biochemistry and design in unison could make a dent in the chemical waste associated with loads of laundry.
One of the company’s main reasons for focusing on detergents was the opportunity to make a large impact on a pervasive problem that’s still low on the radar of even the most conscious of consumers. Watkins says that “there are around 37 billion loads of laundry that are done a year, and if you associate every load of laundry with a dose of laundry detergent, the vast majority of all those laundry detergents contain carcinogens and toxins like 1,4- Dioxane.” Many of these chemicals leach into our water supply, which in turn pollutes soils and food supply. Dirty Lab’s original detergent formula utilizes Phytolase®, an enzyme-driven solution that targets stains, naturally breaking it down into simpler components that allow the stain to wash away more easily.
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This clever approach to sustainable impact in business makes the Dirty Lab team a great one for gleaning advice on how to start a company or launch a product from the ground up using a holistic sustainability approach. We recently chatted with Watkins to learn more about Dirty Lab’s origin story and advice he would give to anyone hoping launch their own sustainable business.
Core77: Tell me a little about your background and how Dirty Labs began. What made you settle on the idea of laundry detergent?
David Watkins: My background is certainly not in home cleaning products, but in consumer products. I started my career in the golf industry and that’s kind of where I learned how to design products. I went from there to VF Corp where I did product design development and product management for Jansport. And then my career took a pretty hard switch to consumer electronics, when I moved to head of R&D for a company called InCase.
After about my first year of working with InCase, I ended up moving to China for them and setting up development offices. Later I moved from consumer electronics to true hardware working with Jawbone, for example. I helped with China operations for Jambox, a couple of Bluetooth headsets, and some Skullcandy products. Then I started my own thing, which was a case and accessories brand called Adopted, and we launched in every Apple store in the world within our first quarter of business.
But after living and working in China and being around this industry for a pretty long time, you see the ugly side of tech hardware. If you think about the phones that you’re using and all the connectors and cables and chargers and all of those things, they become pretty obsolete after a year or two. And you think about all that waste going into landfills, and when you work where things are manufactured and produced, things like scrap runs or end of life, certain product cycles are pretty disturbing to watch because it’s in the hundreds of 1000s of units.
[My co-founder Dr. Pete He] was the head of R&D and Product for Tatcha, which is a skincare, clean beauty brand, but also worked for large chemical companies. In the past, when he would go to a chemical plant, he would see the discharge coming out of these factories going straight to the East River and in New Jersey. And I think that when you’re an R&D and Sustainability leader, a lot of times large corporations generally put profits over innovation and sustainability, so I think for him he wanted to do something in a similar fashion. So we got to talking about, what could we pursue that would be interesting and that we believed in, where we could really show some innovation? Fairly quickly we settled on laundry detergent because it’s a huge category.
Your ethos at Dirty Labs seems to be about embracing sustainability in this very holistic way. In what ways have you tackled within your own company to make sure it’s safe, sustainable as possible? Are there ways in which your company goes above and beyond what companies typically do?
Sustainability for us really means looking at the whole solution because when we look at this space, certainly there’s a big buzz around plastics, but it’s the only thing that people are calling out or recognizing as not great for the planet. When we created Dirty Labs, we looked at the inside and outside of the product, so not only the packaging but also the formulation itself. We like to look at ourselves as a clean cleaning company. So, from a chemistry side of things, I think we’re very, very different. The vast majority of laundry detergents today are reliant on petrochemicals, synthetic surfactants as the primary sort of cleaning agent and a detergent.
And there have been some advances with some of the green brands where they’re pulling a lot of that matter from plant-based oils, that sort of thing. For us, it was really about, could we turn to biotech and bio-based solutions to solve some of those problems? So what we’ve created is a heavily enzyme-driven formula that’s completely free of California prop 65 chemicals, which is really quite unique when you start looking at the chemistry of things. It’s free of all fragrance allergens, it’s biodegradable, bio renewable and rapidly biodegrades once it gets into the water supply.
If you look at the numbers, they’re pretty staggering. I think in the US there are around 37 billion loads of laundry that are done a year. And if you associate every load of laundry with a dose of laundry detergent, the vast majority of all those laundry detergents contain carcinogens and toxins like 1,4- Dioxane and some of these other things are kind of “forever” chemicals—i.e., wastewater facilities can treat some of it but eventually it gets into your groundwater. It gets into dirt and soils and then into your body. So I think from a sustainability standpoint, there’s a big part of this that’s in the formula. If we can turn to nature-inspired chemistry that allows detergent to rapidly biodegrade out in the wild, we thought that that was a pretty unique approach.
We’re certainly not perfect, but when you look at our bottle, the formula is very, very concentrated, which means you’ve got a number of different form factors that you can look at. It’s a liquid for sure, but we were able to go with a 600 milliliter aluminum bottle as the primary housing. That being said, we do have a plastic spout and cap and that’s something where we made a design trade-off between usability and using a plastic component in our product. But I think what we saw was we chose a winner because of the fact that we could get 73% recycled aluminum to work [for packaging], and the recycling rate on aluminum is so high. Combining a sustainable formula with a much more sustainable material for your primary packaging seemed like a really smart choice for us.
It also wasn’t such a divergence from how people use laundry. The cap is a lot smaller, I think it’s a 96% plus reduction in plastic. But you’re still taking a bottle and filling a cap and it helps train that user to get used to using so much less laundry detergent, right? One load uses less than two teaspoons, so we needed a cap to help people understand how to measure the product, and that’s a pretty big change when you’re going from, let’s say, 47 milliliters down to 8.
Are there any sustainability practices taking place right now on a widespread scale that kind of irk you?
In general, I would say that the fact that everything is “sustainable” now, the pervasive level of greenwashing actually makes it very difficult to get a green story out there because everybody’s green and sustainable. And it takes a lot of education to communicate why you’re different. So I would say that’s probably the number one hurt, is that there’s no regulation, and people are pretty liberal, in terms of the ‘green’ claims they’re making. So when you try to take an accountable approach where you’re saying “we’re not perfect,” it’s less attention-grabbing than being able to say something else. Some companies have aluminum bottles and say “hey, we’re plastic free,” but there’s most likely some plastic component to the lining.
Do you have any advice in the realm of sustainability you would give to designers out there who are looking to create their own business, who don’t want to just create another greenwashing product?
When I worked for other brands in my career, I think that in most of them there’s been this desire usually that stems from the design team to create a version of your hero product that’s more eco-friendly, or more sustainable. And I think that the challenge with doing that, in a big business for example, is the green version that you’ll make is maybe more expensive, less profitable, maybe works less well. And then those products tend to not really go too far or make too big of an impact because your core business is really somewhere else entirely, and you may be giving up a lot of things when you resort to eco-friendly alternatives. So I guess my advice is to really design the costs required to scale for green solutions into the business plan from the beginning. I think what is nice to see in the world today is that there are people out there who are willing to pay a premium for a lot of these more sustainable features and benefits, so you really need to be able to communicate those benefits, and then build that into your model.
Would you say that you have kind of an economical argument as to why a company should be more sustainable? Or does it simply lie on ethics right now for companies to start becoming more sustainable?
With many things right now, consumers are sort of voting for companies to be more sustainable. A lot of times that is an emotional thing, right? We’re using ethics to help influence my decisions [as a consumer] and I will essentially pay more dollars for this service that has the values that I value. But I think that one of the Holy Grails to all of this is designing in innovation where the sustainable solution is actually better than the conventional solution. In a lot of ways, I think we’ve tried to do that with Dirty Labs, and I think especially on the formulation side we’ve done a really good job where we’re getting conventional levels of performance, but without all of these toxic chemicals that are bad for sensitive skin, bad for you in general, and certainly not ideal for the environment either. And so I think that there are certainly ways where exploring new manufacturing methods, new component technologies where you can find pockets of innovation that allow you to reach that Holy Grail, and for us that was really about efficacy and safety.
Do you have any advice for more immediate ways that existing companies, either big or small, can begin implementing more sustainable practices? Or is it strictly about the long term plan?
I read an article fairly recently that was basically benchmarking large corporations against their sustainability goals. And I think the general theme of this article was that the majority of companies are on track to meet, or even exceed their sustainability goals in 2021. But it’s also because the bar has been set so low. And I think the challenge here is that there’s a lot of education around sustainability that needs to be done. Until you start really peeling back the layers, I would say the vast majority of people out there don’t know that some of the things they used to clean their house with are pretty toxic. I’m sure you’ve had that feeling where you’re cleaning the bathroom or something and you think, “man, I should really open a window.” Because those products use bleach and harsh [chemicals], you can smell the vapors and maybe get a little lightheaded. When you wash your clothes, it’s more about, “oh my skin’s getting a little rash,” you’re seeing some eczema or something. So I don’t think people are necessarily making that association that maybe that’s coming from what I’m using to wash my clothes. And so there’s tons of education that needs to get done.
And I’d say that most businesses choose to go for [sustainability goals] that are a little bit easier to communicate. So I do think that there seems to be this trend where consumers are starting to be more educated, or at least researching things more. COVID certainly sparked something in home cleaning where people are asking, “is my hand sanitizer going to be effective against the virus? What am I using to wipe down my surfaces with and does that help protect myself?” So there is a movement towards this education. But the sustainability aspect of it is kind of the next step.
Why do you think it’s important for designers to have a thorough knowledge on sustainability?
When I started my career, I worked with a lot of designers making products that were getting manufactured in China or in Asia somewhere. And you could really tell the difference between designers who had experience in manufacturing and understood how the process worked, and the designers who didn’t. The design spec package from those who didn’t sometimes would create a beautiful CAD rendering or drawing, but it’s completely un-manufacturable. So to me, if the goal is to build products that are better for the planet, you really have to understand the lifecycle of whatever components you’re putting into your designs.
And I think that all of that is certainly reflected in people’s work—it’s really easy to come up with a beautiful rendering of a product for example, but it’s a whole lot more complicated when you designed in all of the other constraints. I would say sustainability is just another design constraint you need to think about.
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What are some goals you have for Dirty Labs in the future when it comes to tackling other problems related to the home cleaning area?
A lot of the core of the products that we’re going to make are rooted in biotech and biochemistry, so i think a lot of the solutions that we’re looking at are focused on different parts of your home care routine, whether that’s applications of our technology, and other products that surround the laundry space. We’re also looking at probiotics surface cleaning, machine dishwashing and that sort of thing. So we’re looking at it from a solutions-based approach, focusing in on other areas of cleaning in the house where I think we can apply a lot of the same guiding design principles.