At a Garden Grove manufacturing plant, chemists confer over batches of lavender, parsley and other natural ingredients, testing them for strength and quality. Other tests ensure that the products are pure and pour well.
Visitors might be excused for thinking the facility was crafting a fine wine or artisan beer. But at Earth Friendly Products, plants have a higher purpose: getting your house and clothing clean without hurting the environment.
Earth Friendly Products makes dozens of natural cleaning products, including the best-selling Ecos laundry detergent, which is carried online, in supermarkets and at big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco. The company says its products are biodegradable and free of chemical substances such as dioxane, formaldehyde, petrochemicals and salt.
The business draws its approach from the experiences of its 78-year-old founder, Van Vlahakis. In the 1960s, Vlahakis worked for companies that manufactured cleaning products using chemicals that gave him headaches.
"At the time, we did not know how toxic or how dangerous they were to the environment," Vlahakis said. "I wanted to make something that was better for people, safer for the environment."
But Earth Friendly Products isn't run with business solely in mind. The way that Executive Vice President Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks describes her family's company, it sounds more like a crusade.
"It's important for us to not only create the most green products in the marketplace, but to also do it in the greenest fashion possible," the founder's daughter said.
The Garden Grove plant was designed by an expert in the standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, which address ways that buildings are designed, constructed and operated to be environmentally responsible.
Rooftop solar panels provide 60% of the electricity. Sensors detect natural light and tone down the artificial light accordingly.
There's a "director of sustainability" who checks trash bins for anything that shouldn't be there and finds ways to recycle the company's waste products, even the paper backing for its adhesive labels.
For the trash from the labels, Nadereh Afsharmanesh, the sustainability director, found a company that could use it as fuel for its production process. "We've reduced our trash by 95%," she said.
Vlahakis came to the U.S. from Greece in 1953, when he was 18. He had only $22.
He scraped together enough to get a bachelor's degree in chemistry from
After working for others for nearly a decade, he founded Venus Laboratories in a Chicago garage. Later the name was changed to Earth Friendly Products.
The company opened its California factory 1977 and now maintains one headquarters in Garden Grove, where Chief Executive Van Vlahakis is based, and another in Illinois, where his son and company president, John Vlahakis, is based.
The memory of those early days in poverty, including a few stays at homeless shelters, still resonates with the elder Vlahakis. Base pay at Earth Friendly Products is $15 an hour and soon will be raised to $17.
"We strongly believe that this should be the minimum as a living wage," Vlahakis-Hanks said. "The minimum wage in California is $8 an hour. Who can live off of $8 an hour?"
Incentive packages include one week's bonus pay for
Stay with the company 20 years and get an all-expense-paid vacation. Employees can get $2,000 to help purchase a hybrid or other green vehicle. They can get $2,000 if they install solar panels at home.
There's also a $1,000 relocation incentive for employees who move closer to the Garden Grove facility.
Those kinds of business practices have gotten the company noticed. In California, Earth Friendly Products was a 2010 winner of the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards Program.
CleanTechOC, a nonprofit that promotes green industry in Orange County, named Earth Friendly Products its company of the year for 2013.
It may also be the only cleaning products company that inspired a feature film, "A Green Story," released last year. The stars include Malcolm McDowell, who plays the villain who tries to force Vlahakis to sell his company.
Earth Friendly Products makes more than 150 products at five manufacturing plants sprinkled around the U.S. California is by far the largest, with its customers accounting for 30% of overall sales.
Sales will top $100 million this year, up from $56 million in 2008. The company powered its way through the recession, and it's still growing.
Part of that success stems from its ability to sell natural products at prices that are competitive with more conventional cleaners sold by big-name competitors. The company is able to keep prices low through what it saves on energy costs and by allowing each of its factories to buy supplies locally, Vlahakis said.
"We don't have to pay the freight costs. This is the smart way to do it, using local people, local suppliers," he said.
Earth Friendly Products has 300 employees, 65 of them in California. The Garden Grove plant might launch a second shift, Vlahakis-Hanks said, which would add 20 to 25 workers.
The manufacturing process starts in the lab, where chemists work with natural items such as coconut oil, which goes into detergent to break up grease and grime. Using natural ingredients instead of synthetic chemicals makes the process more challenging, Technical Director Jenna Arkin said.
"Natural products have variances," said Arkin, a chemist. "Every orange is a little bit different, every coconut is a little bit different. Our primary job is to make sure the quality is right. Every Ecos you purchase has to look and feel the same."
The company's lab and manufacturing process are so clean that executives said they actually like being in California. That's something not often heard in manufacturing circles.
The high regulatory standards, Vlahakis said, help distinguish Earth Friendly Products in the marketplace.
"Why do people complain? California is the best place for our company," Vlahakis said. "The laws and rules and the regulations here are good for our business."