PULLMAN — My new “neighbor,” Adam Lowry, apologized for showing up a few minutes late.
The co-founder of Method, which set up its North American manufacturing headquarters in Pullman, was having a little fun getting a forklift lesson on how to safely set a giant box of the company's eco-friendly soap high on the top rack in the warehouse.
“That’s my box way up there,” he said proudly, while showing me around the soap-making plant — the first new factory on the South Side in about 30 years.
It's fair to say that Lowry, an energetic sport dressed in khaki pants, a plaid shirt and canvas Chuck Taylors, has little in common with industrialist power brokers like Inland Steel’s Philip Block and railroad mogul George Pullman, who first turned the Far South Side into a manufacturing hub in the late 1800s.
Still, some hopeful folks believe the laid-back soap-maker and his partners, who put Method’s wind- and solar-powered North America manufacturing hub in Pullman, might spark a wave of clean manufacturing that helps revitalize Pullman and economically struggling neighborhoods nearby.
“You know, there’s this stark juxtaposition of what the old industry that Pullman came to represent that the national monument honors, and Method, which represents green industry and alternative fuel and fast-growing, hip companies that represent a new economy the same way Pullman represented a new economy in 1880,” developer David Doig said.
“With Method, you get this real innovative, clean, green cleaning company and all the excitement around alternative energy, the windmill and solar panels and the new jobs it brings. That’s significant.”
While crews put finishing touches on the factory facade, Method is already up and running with about 50 workers manning the soap-making operation — a collection of folks tending to the warehouse, mixing up scented soap concoctions, filling the bottles and packaging them up to ship to grocery stores and major retailers, including Target, Home Depot and Lowe's.
By the end of the year, Method expects to double its number of employees and have two more bottling lines up and running. The company plans to build a rail spur to speed shipping and lower fuel emissions. Having the whole operation under one roof — with quick access to railroads — saves money and has a less negative impact on the environment, Lowry said.
In a few months, work will start on the factory's rooftop greenhouse, which is being rented by Gotham Greens, a New York City-based company that specializes in hydroponically grown gourmet leafy lettuce, herbs and tomatoes, and will be the world's largest.
As he rattled off the factory's alternative energy benefits — from the industry-grade windmill to the sun-tracking trees collecting solar energy in the parking lot — it was clearly difficult for Lowry to contain a certain nerdy excitement over the plant's low carbon footprint.
That's got everything to do with what Lowry calls “The Method Method,” which doubled as the title of a book he co-authored with his childhood pal and business partner, Eric Ryan, that outlines “seven obsessions that helped our scrappy startup turn an industry upside down.”
Lowry, 40, has dedicated his professional life having a positive impact on the environment. He even calls himself Method’s “chief greenskeeper,” a nod to his dedication to keeping the soap company environmentally friendly.
Before mixing those first batches of eco-friendly soap in beer pitchers at the San Francisco apartment he shared with Ryan, Lowry worked as a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institute.
“Carnegie and the climate science community does incredible work, but they’re relying on a broken political system, particularly on the federal level, to have it translate into the right types of behavior. And that just became enormously frustrating to me so I decided to try and do it another way that’s cultural,” Lowry said.
“Method is really about trying to get ‘green’ things to just be more enjoyable and more relevant to more people. Our sustainability is just part of the product. It’s not part of the marketing. We try to bring green to mainstream rather than do what everyone else does, which is try to pull mainstream toward green.”
After bottling a batch of the craft soaps they stirred up in their apartment bathtub, Lowry and Ryan would get up early to pitch local grocers on giving a little shelf space.
“I’d go around at 6 in the morning,” Lowry said. “I got thrown out of every grocery store in the Bay Area.”
They nearly went broke, but stuck with it, scored investors and a deal to sell Method at Target, which ultimately led to a partnership with Belgium-based soap-maker Ecover and a business that now tops about $200 million in annual sales, according to published reports.
Now Lowry says they’ve taken a wider view of the nontoxic soap business that includes being good to their neighbors as well as the environment.
So when they decided to plant Method’s factory in Chicago — and specifically Pullman — part of their mission included having a positive influence on the surrounding community.
“You see there’s no fence around this place. It’s designed to be parkland so people can enjoy it,” Lowry says from the veranda overlooking the Method factory grounds, a restored prairie parkland and water retention ponds stocked with aquatic plants frequented by migrating birds where broken concrete and steel slag used to be.
“So we built this as a chill space where everyone can come hang out. There’s a difference between being a resident and being a neighbor. If we’re going to be a neighbor, we’ve got to embrace the community.”
Maybe even clean it up a bit.
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