As MD of Ecover, Mick Bremans heads a business that prides itself on being one of the original - and most credible - of the green brands. Set to report sales of £50m this year, half of which will come from the UK, the Belgian ecological cleaning products business is riding high and Bremans cuts a confident figure as he talks to The Grocer at the company's new €10m French factory, which opened in May. But, he concedes, there are also a number of threats to the business. The biggest is competition from the big brand multinationals jumping onto the green bandwagon. There is a real danger that some of their claims will undermine those of green 'originals' such as Ecover, raising the prospect of a similar green boom and bust to that of the 1990s, he warns. "We saw some terrible oil tanker disasters in the 1970s and 80s and people consequently became more interested in the environment," he says. "A lot of products suddenly launched or went green - everything was green. But faster than they came up, they disappeared." Credibility and integrity were the key issues then, as they are now. "Consumers have a lot more knowledge about the environment but I still fear what could happen if the trend repeats itself," he says. "It doesn't weaken Ecover's message, but when consumers see what some of these green claims really mean then it could weaken overall consumer confidence and affect us." Bremans is rightly worried. After the first green crash in the early 1990s the Belgian company was close to bankruptcy. The company was saved by businessman Jørgen Philip Sørensen, who was also chairman of Group 4 Securicor until last year. He believed that, with some adjustments, Ecover could have staying power and bought the business in 1999. The new 10,000 sq m French factory, near Calais, is testament to this belief. It currently produces 40,000kg of product a day while the Belgium plant's output is 120,000kg. Within the next six months Ecover will have four liquid lines in production at the new site and will have doubled output. Within the next three to four years Bremans forecasts it will reach capacity of somewhere between 240,000kg and 300,000kg - at least six times the current volumes. With significant capacity now available, Ecover plans to grow in the UK by adding greater depth to its offer. Although the top seven supermarkets carry the range - Tesco and Sainsbury's are its joint biggest customers - they do not offer it across all stores so the company is looking for more listings in convenience chains and cash & carries, and has recently signed up with Homebase. It is also expanding into the personal care sector with a four-strong range of shampoos, soaps and shower gels under the Ecover brand at the end of the year. The range, which carries the French eco-cert label, will debut in France before launching in other markets, including the UK. Bremans acknowledges that success will depend on overcoming consumer prejudice. "There is debate about whether the Ecover brand can go into personal hygiene," says Bremans. "I believe we can do it, but some say you can't mix cleaning with personal care." Meanwhile, Ecover is also building on the businesses it has acquired, including wellbeing cosmetics brand Wellments, which it bought in 2005. The range, which has no Ecover branding, includes body lotions and scrubs, deodorants and air fresheners and will be launched in the UK over the next few months, potentially followed by an internet launch. "I see no limit to how far Ecover can go," says Bremans. "But we don't want to expand for the sake of it - only where we can really add something." Ecover's products are distributed across 22 countries but while the UK is maintaining 20% year-on-year growth, sales represent only £25m of the £964m UK laundry market, so there's still plenty of untapped opportunity. However, says Bremans, it is the US market that offers real long-term potential for growth. At the moment, Ecover products are principally sold in health food shops rather than grocery chains in the US and sales account for only 7% of its global turnover. Yet its US business is growing 25% year-on-year and within three years the company will probably have to manufacture in the US to meet increased demand from that market. With such bold expansion plans, is the company in danger of becoming similar to the larger players that it rallies against? Not a chance, says Bremans: the company's environmental ethos runs too deep. He highlights the fact that the new French factory cost 30% more to build than a traditional factory, with extra investment spent on: separating rainwater, factory salt water and bathroom waste water into different systems; safeguarding against noise and light pollution; water purification for all products; and the use of sustainable wood and a special recyclable material for the fabric of the factory. Unlike some of its larger competitors, he adds, Ecover is keen to see tougher rather than more lenient accreditation standards. It has taken a stand against using the European Commission's eco-label, which is found on UK products including Aquados, because Bremans says the final set of standards is "disappointing". "We were involved in the early stages of coming up with the criteria but the final label has been weakened by the lobbying of big manufacturers and there was not much of the original standards left," he says. His main gripe with the label is that it allows phosphates and has no scope for encouraging brands to further improve environmental standards. "Across most of Europe phosphates are banned, so it means that many UK products that could carry the label could not be sold in Europe, with or without the label, for environmental reasons," he says. "This makes no sense; pollution has no borders. Rather than a label, we'd like to see the authorities focus on informing people about the real environmental issues. Activities by the Carbon Trust are good, but it's one-sided and doesn't consider toxicity." Instead Ecover has this year started on a project with sustainability consultancy Best Foot Forward to calculate its ecological footprint, which Bremans says goes one step further than just looking at the carbon emission of the product. These are all bold steps, but Bremans still has to convince consumers to buy his products over the new offers from heavy hitters such as Reckitt Benckiser, which is launching its own environmentally friendly laundry brand VO shortly. It won't be easy, he says, but Ecover's credibility and integrity should give it the edge.n Q&A Could Ecover be the next ethical brand to be bought out by a multinational? We are regularly approached but are not interested in additional capital at the moment. Saying that, we wouldn't exclude it in our growth process and could look at bringing in a partner. We are going for organic growth, but would also look at acquisitions ourselves if they came up. Obviously they wouldn't be conventional brands, they'd need to be ecological. The problem is there aren't many. Who do you admire in business? The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. She created not only an ethical company but a successful business model. Anita remains an inspiration for how we could develop Ecover. What brands other than Ecover excite you? Not in the same industry, but Timberland is getting serious about the environment. I am also watching what Unilever is doing with Ben & Jerry's and whether it is supporting the original ethos of the company and expanding on it. Is the environment really a priority for big business? No. In general, industry is reluctant to make any real changes. Yes, businesses will implement innovation and bring in new products. But the only time the environment will become a priority is when it's too late and starts costing them money. Will the regular man on the street ever put eco credentials above price? Once real environmental products become more mainstream and their quality is accepted they will start to become cheaper as new technology comes through. But, people need to start really understanding the real price of their products.