Van Vlahakis, an ecology-minded entrepreneur who manufactured and marketed environmentally safe cleaning products, including the best-selling ECOS laundry detergent, died April 6 at his home in Key Largo, Fla., his family said. He was 79.

His family announced the death and said the cause was a heart attack.

The Greek-born Mr. Vlahakis founded Venus Laboratories in the garage of his Chicago home in 1967. A decade later, he changed the name to Earth Friendly Products and opened a headquarters and factory in Garden Grove, Calif.

With 300 employees and five manufacturing plants in the United States, the company topped $100 million in sales last year with biodegradable, chemical-free products sold online and in supermarkets and big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco.

Born in Crete on Jan. 14, 1935, Mr. Vlahakis immigrated to the United States at 18; he had $22 in his pocket. He lived in homeless shelters and supported himself with odd jobs at bars and restaurants while attending Roosevelt University in Chicago. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1958, he found work in the cleaning products industry.

Van Vlahakis. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

His first jobs exposed him to harsh chemicals that gave him headaches and caused co-workers to suffer from rashes and other irritations. Remembering that his mother used natural substances such as water, vinegar and olive oil for cleaning, Mr. Vlahakis decided to start his own business.

“I wanted to make something that was better for people, safer for the environment,” he told the Los Angeles Times last year.

His company has won awards for progressive business practices, including its use of renewable energy and offering employees financial incentives for buying hybrid or other green vehicles. The former poor immigrant also believed in providing a livable wage, paying employees at least $15 an hour.

His life story was the basis for “A Green Story,” a 2013 feature film with a cast that included Malcolm McDowell as a villain who tries to force Mr. Vlahakis to sell his company.

Los Angeles Times