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 Roosevelt University in 1958. The best jobs, he said, were in the cleaning products industry.
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?"
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.