Panda Cleaners is proof that greening a business is not only good for the environment but the bottom line, too

Most people are well versed on the subject of laundry—clothes go in dirty; they come out clean. But while doing laundry results in spotless clothes, a lot of us are unaware that the process itself is not necessarily clean. A typical top-loading washer uses approximately 40 gallons of water per load, a dryer can use up to five kilowatts of electricity per hour, and conventional laundry detergents contain a host of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that are detrimental to our health and eco-system.

This had been a source of frustration for environment advocate Zarah Juan, whose husband owns and franchises Lavandera Mo, a laundry company. “I was manufacturing environmental bags in early 2007 and I shared an office with my husband,” shares Juan. “Most of my clients were environmentally conscious, and whenever they would visit our small office, they see a lot of plastic bags (for Lavandera Mo) which resulted in confusion. So I told my husband that we needed to make our businesses jive.”

Green is the Way

Panda Cleaners is the first ecologically friendly cleaner company in the country, which brings with it its own set of challenges. “When we decided to put up Panda Cleaners, there weren’t a lot of green options from our suppliers,” says Juan. “It took almost two years of continuous research, product testing, and screening because there were products that claimed to be green but weren’t. It wasn’t until the latter part of 2008 that true green options started showing up.”

What differentiates Panda Cleaners from the original Lavandera Mo rests on four major components. “One is that the soap we use is biodegradable, plant-based and hypoallergenic,” says Juan. “We were able to partner with Plantex, a local detergent brand made from banana bark. The product is 90 percent organic—you can even use our soap water to water your plants.”

The plastic bags, as expected, had to go. “This was our biggest challenge because if we used other materials to carry our laundry, it would be really expensive,” says Juan. “But then lumabas ang biodegradable plastic bags.” While some may contest the concept of biodegradable plastic bags, Juan says that it was better compared to traditional plastic. “A regular plastic bag will stay in the environment as waste, but biodegradable plastic bags go back as water, carbon dioxide and biomass after undergoing biodegradation.”

More than just its raw materials, Panda Cleaners greened other areas of its business. When it came to the construction of its outlets, which were converted Lavandera Mo outlets, Juan partnered with Boysen’s Healthy Home line. “It is odorless, nontoxic, anti-bacterial paint,” enthuses Juan. “We found that if you use regular paint, it has an effect on our clothes. The smell sticks to the clothes, which could lead to skin rashes especially for kids and babies. The one we use is odorless because it’s water-based, and even when the paint is old, it retains its anti-bacterial component so there’s no fungus or mildew on our walls.”

The Green Wave

To date, the Juan husband-and-wife tandem have successfully convinced 30 of their 62 Lavandera Mo franchisees to convert to Panda Cleaners’ business model. “Our goal this year is to convert 100 percent of our franchisees,” shares Juan. “We’re converting every Saturday, one by one. We’ve talked with all of them and they agreed—especially after Ondoy—that it’s about time we switched to another product.”

Most of the franchisees’ concerns were mainly on the business side—whether converting would have an effect on the price and the quality of the laundry. “Our raw materials are a little more expensive now, but we decided to retain the same price of P30/kilo,” says Juan. “We just looked for other areas of our business to cut costs in. Like our lights, we’ve switched to energy-saving fluorescent compact lights, which saves us 30 percent on energy consumption.”

When Panda Cleaners opened its first converted shop in Legaspi Village, Makati last year, Juan says that the response they got from consumers was overwhelming. “Even clients from our Lavandera Mo outlet in Salcedo Village would go all the way to Legaspi to have their laundry done in Panda instead,” she shares. “I think that one advantage Ondoy gave us is a growing environmental consciousness among people. Meron na talaga. After converting from our Lavandera Mo to Panda Cleaners, our franchisees reported 15 to 20 percent increase in sales. They don’t even complain about costs rising because they have faster returns on investment.”

The innovations do not stop there, says Juan. “Right now, we just target to convert all our franchisees. But the big goal is to really green the whole cleaning business—carpets, curtains, shoe cleaning, air cleaning, dust mites, air purifying, and even industrial laundry. We really want to get the message across that in any business—be it laundry, food, etc.—there are “green” services and processes you can adopt, and the customer is just waiting.”

Published in the Business Agenda section of Manila Bulletin, Aug 1, 2010.