Whole Health: Clean Sweep

GREEN CLEANING COMPANIES WANT TO WIPE away any misperceptions: They're just as tough on germs and dirt as any conventional line, and their prices are pretty good, too. Judging by sales performance over the past couple of years, more consumers believe them. According to data from SPINS, sales of natural household cleaning products in the conventional retail channel have increased 53% since 2007, to

GREEN CLEANING COMPANIES WANT TO WIPE away any misperceptions: They're just as tough on germs and dirt as any conventional line, and their prices are pretty good, too.

Judging by sales performance over the past couple of years, more consumers believe them. According to data from SPINS, sales of natural household cleaning products in the conventional retail channel have increased 53% since 2007, to nearly $250 million. Most of that growth came before the recession hit. But still, the category was in the black between 2008 and 2009, with growth at 8%.

When green cleaners first came to market, there was a limited palette of cleaning ingredients available that could be called eco-friendly as well as effective. Manufacturers have come a long way since then, harnessing the potential of natural ingredients like herbs and oils to create formulas that disinfect, fight stains and lift away grease.

“The challenge is shifting from finding ingredients that meet our standards to optimizing the performance of available ingredients to formulate the highest efficacy, most natural product possible,” said Cara Bondi, research chemist with Seventh Generation, one of the country's largest manufacturers of green nonfood items.

Armed with such insights, manufacturers in the category have been steadily able to address performance issues, and close the gap with conventional cleaners that rely on phosphates and other synthetic materials.

“Before we release a product to the marketplace, we do all sorts of third-party independent testing to make sure that we're on par with the leading brands,” said Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, vice president of Earth Friendly Products.

A firm emphasis on research and development has helped manufacturers find natural solutions for many leading claims, and they've wasted no time getting those products to market. Clorox's Green Works recently introduced a natural laundry detergent with stain-removing ingredients. Seventh Generation, meanwhile, has a line of disinfecting products with an active ingredient derived from thyme. Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, began stocking the line in February, announcing it as the first to meet the company's standards for disinfecting cleaners.

Companies are also concentrating, and even ultra-concentrating, their formulas. Method, maker of stylishly packaged natural cleaners, came out in January with a laundry detergent that's eight times more concentrated than conventional detergents. Brands like Conserve, manufactured by Baumgartens, offer their formulas in a solid tablet that activates in water, allowing consumers to reuse their plastic bottles.

Innovations have even come for non-essential features, like the pleasing scents that consumers are used to in many conventional products. Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day recently introduced a geranium-scented line of cleaners.

At Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, which has its own standards for green cleaning products, grocery merchandiser Stephanie Steiner sees customers purchasing a lot of scented liquid dish soap.

“Floral scents such as lavender are available, but for their kitchens in particular, our shoppers prefer food-related scents such as citrus, almond and pear,” she said.

Despite the progress they've made, though, green cleaners are still a hard sell for some consumers. In Spokane County, Wash., stores are banned from selling detergents with more than 0.5% phosphate content. The regulation was enacted to prevent algae growth in area waterways. That sounds like a golden opportunity for natural alternatives, but according to local reports, some people haven't been satisfied with the results of their non-phosphate cleaners. They're driving east into Idaho and bringing back conventional detergent.

To counter the skepticism and gain trial, green cleaning companies are becoming more competitive with their pricing and discounts. Seventh Generation is offering $1-off coupons on its new disinfecting line. Earth Friendly also plans to spend a chunk of its marketing dollars on couponing, as well as in-store demos, said Vlahakis-Hanks.

The category's success to date has also made it more cost-competitive. As they streamline their formulas and sell at higher volume, manufacturers are able to lower their prices.

“Now that we're doing more volume, we're able to keep our prices low just like the big guys in the industry,” said Vlahakis-Hanks.

At some retailers, though, price doesn't determine loyalty. Charlie Coward, grocery manager with Pennington Quality Market in Pennington, N.J., said the environmentally friendly laundry detergents he stocks perform well, despite the cost.

“People who are loyal to those items stick to them no matter what,” he said. “A lot of our eco-friendly varieties don't go on sale. They stay the same price all the time.”

Still, others are keeping prices in check with their own lines of natural cleaners. Safeway, for one, carries a line of kitchen, bathroom and window cleaners under its Bright Green brand. Wal-Mart Stores has also begun rolling out cleaners under its GreenLine private label. Publix Super Markets has GreenWise.

To garner even more attention for its new brand, Safeway celebrated Earth Day this month by offering discounts on the Bright Green line. Through April 27, customers who bought two of any item in the line got a third free.

“This is an easy and great way to kick-start your spring cleaning, save some money and do something better for the environment,” the Pleasanton, Calif.-based retailer stated in promotional materials.

At PCC Natural Markets, a big part of the marketing plan is to let employees use the same products they sell. Mimi Simmons, customer service manager for the cooperative, said workers have access to, among other items, an organic foaming hand soap that's locally made.

“We use natural products for a wide range of needs, from cleaning stainless steel surfaces to keeping drains open with an unscented bacterial cleaner that also helps to control seasonal fruit flies,” said Simmons.

Ultimately, sources agree, the sale comes down to whether or not a cleaning product gets the job done. Consumers won't buy something out of eco-guilt alone.

“No one is going to buy twice a product that doesn't work, regardless of how eco-friendly it may be,” said PCC's Steiner. “Our shoppers keep buying our natural cleaning products because they perform well and because they don't introduce harmful or irritating substances into their households.”

GOOD ADVICE

  • Offer coupons or reward points to gain trial buys on green cleaners.
  • Have a strategic marketing plan in place for this growing category.
  • Work with vendors on offering in-store demos to highlight improved cleaning performance.

Soaking It Up

For many consumers, cleaning isn't truly “green” if they're throwing away all those sponges and paper towels. With this in mind, manufacturers have introduced all-natural, biodegradable alternatives.

Twist, a Boulder, Colo.-based company, makes a colorful lineup of loofahs, cloths, sponges and a woven fiber scrub pad called a Dish Dumpling. A new company called SKOY in Encinitas, Calif., meanwhile, makes thin cloths printed with a flower design that can replace sponges and paper towels. Marketing literature states that one SKOY sponge saves 15 rolls of paper towels.

Retailers have begun absorbing the new lines. Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio carries E-cloth, a line of sponges and wipes that use built-in microfiber technology instead of cleaning liquid to sanitize. And at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, both disposable and reusable products are hot sellers now.

“Cleaning wipes are becoming popular, as well as dye-free, all-natural scrubbies that are sponges with a loofah on the outside,” said Stephanie Steiner, grocery merchandiser for the nine-store cooperative.


Make Your Own

Cleaning solution doesn't have to come from a $4 bottle bought at the grocery store. Mix a little vinegar, water and baking soda, and you've got a serviceable alternative. That's not the way most people prefer to go, of course, but economic woes have forced them to mix things up.

To help them out, retailers like Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, have provided recipes that utilize common household products. On its website, PCC recommends mixing lemon juice with baking soda or vinegar to create an all-purpose cleaning paste. The site also suggests cutting a lemon in half, then adding baking soda to the exposed portion and using that as a scrub sponge.

In a recent blog post on the Whole Foods website, a team member offered up recipes from several customers. Larry recommended mixing 2 tablespoons of white vinegar with a gallon of water and some scented oils to make window cleaner, while Holly said that, to get out tough stains from clothes, she adds a little bit of lemon juice to the spot and leaves the garment out in the sun for a day.