SDG Impact Icons: Alain Ménard
“Companies can make a difference by providing consumers with sustainable products.”
In partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada, each month, Startup Canada is celebrating and putting the spotlight on a leading Canadian social innovator driving change in one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Alain Ménard, Co-founder & President of The Green Beaver Company to learn about their impact on SDG 6—Clean Water and Sanitation.
Alain Ménard co-founded The Green Beaver Company with his wife Karen Clark in 2002. After over a decade working as a microbiologist in the pharmaceutical industry, and Karen as a biochemist in pesticides, they decided to quit their jobs and start their own venture. The goal was to put their knowledge to better use by providing natural personal care products that are healthier for people and the environment. In 2008, the company became one of the first in North America to obtain Ecocert sustainability certification. Alain is passionate about helping people find a healthier, more natural way of living.
SC: What is The Green Beaver Company?
AM: We inspire people to live a healthier, natural lifestyle for a sustainable world.
SC: What motivated you to build The Green Beaver Company?
AM: Green Beaver was born for the mission, it wasn’t born out of a business plan—Au contraire!
We started working on this 20 years ago, roughly. My wife’s a biochemist. She was working in pesticides. I’m a microbiologist and I was working in pharmaceuticals.
We had had the big talk—planning a family—and that’s when I started noticing things were changing in the house. It was gradual. We were preparing the nest and we didn’t feel right about our baby going on the floor that we just cleaned with some kind of chemical. Then we started asking—what’s in shampoos? What’s in lotions and things like that? And then, of course, we started eating organic.
It was a hobby at the beginning. Half the kitchen became the lab. I used to call her the pesticide queen during the day and mother nature in the evening. She came home one day and unexpectedly announced to me that she had quit her job. I was concerned at the time, but I could see she was passionate about it.
I continued working for a year and a half. Throughout that time, Karen and I were formulating in the evenings, trying to put products together using only natural ingredients. And then my sister called me—she was 32 at the time. She had just been diagnosed with very advanced breast cancer. She had three boys under the age of three. It was pretty crazy. I found out after that it wasn’t hereditary.
A week after my sister shared the news of her illness, I decided to quit my job.
SC: That’s quite a story, Alain. How does your work advance SDG 6—Clean Water and Sanitation?
AM: Around the time we found out about my sister’s illness, Karen and I had been talking about all the chemicals we’re exposed to—whether it’s what we use to wash our clothes, or what we put on our skin, or what we eat. Where do they end up? They end up in the Ottawa river in Ottawa; in Montreal, they end up in the St. Lawrence; Toronto, in Lake Ontario—that can’t be good. They’re toxic to our environment.
We joined Ecocert 15 years ago. They have to pre-approve all of your ingredients. So of course, they don’t approve of any chemical ingredients, but they also don’t approve of every natural ingredient.
Some natural ingredients have GMOs or they’re derived using solvents. If you’re going to use a nasty solvent to extract essential oils from the lavender flower, what’s the goal? Yeah, you’re going to end up with lavender essential oil, but you’ll have all the solvent that’s going to end up—where? Right? So they have to approve all of the ingredients, and how they’re extracted.
In terms of packaging, they have to approve, for example, the types of ink and glue that are on your labels. They’ll also approve plastic bottles if they contain a certain amount of recycled plastic and if the bottle is recyclable. But you know what, I think that we need to push that.
We’re not a packaging company, but we’ve been working closely with many different packaging companies trying to get them to step up to the plate and come up with not just recyclable options—but biodegradable, and even more sustainable packaging.
SC: What impact are you proudest of?
AM: I think I’m most proud when I see millennial moms adopting our products—mothers with young children. It feels like a natural pairing. Thinking back to 18 years ago, it was a hard sell to convince mothers to make the switch to all-natural.
SC: What has been your biggest learning along the way?
AM: We can make a difference if everyone tries a little bit. Everyone has control over what they buy and how they live. You can vote with your dollars. If you want to get all the chemicals out of household cleaners, dishwasher soap, whatever you have in your home, you can motivate companies to get those things out by buying products without them. The companies that still use chemicals will eventually have to switch.
SC: How has being impact-driven helped you persevere and thrive?
AM: Well, when you see results, it’s very encouraging. Companies can make a difference through the types of products they offer to the consumer. They can make it easier for consumers to use sustainable products. Increasingly, people have started asking for companies to have sustainability policies, and for us, it’s built into our mission.
SC: What advice do you have for Canadian entrepreneurs looking to advance the Sustainable Development Goals with their businesses?
AM: It has to be part of the DNA of the company. I mean, whatever product or service you’re offering, there should also be a Sustainable Development Goal. It has to be in parallel—hand-in-hand—with whatever other goals the company has.
SC: Where can people go to learn more about your journey and organization?
AM: Our website is always a very good source. We’re also pretty active on social media— Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest—so they can always get the latest news of what we’re up to. We have a newsletter that we send out once every two weeks or so, and we don’t just talk about our products or our organization. We also talk about what other people have been doing to help inspire people to live healthier, more natural lives in a sustainable world.
SC: What is your big vision for Canada and the World over the next 20 years?
AM: I would love to see Canada become the very first organic country in the world—and that’s thinking big.
In parts of Pennsylvania, there are century-old farms farming with organic methods and their yields of corn or wheat are as high as farms using conventional farming methods. Why? Because of how they treat the earth, how they feed the earth; they do the right rotation.
We’ve stopped doing that for the most part. We’re just using chemicals to replace that. What happens over time is that the quality of your soil just diminishes—and then what do you do? You add more fertilizer, you add more pesticides. It’s a vicious cycle until one day that earth won’t produce enough.
Often farmers struggle to make the switch, thinking, “if I go organic, my yield goes down.”
Yes, it will—until you nurture the soil back to what it can be and what it can do without the chemicals. If we can subsidize all kinds of chemical companies, why can’t we do the opposite and subsidize industries that want to go greener?
SC: What do you think today’s entrepreneurs should be focused on for a better, brighter future?
AM: Whatever they do, it has to be sustainable. We really need to start doing better. Even Green Beaver—we’re not perfect, but I think we’re ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability—but you should never stop trying to improve.
Is sustainability part of your DNA? Join the Startup Canada Social Impact Network to gain access to social enterprise programming online and on-the-ground.