PRICE SENSITIVITY IN THE LAUNDRY category has been like a stain that just won't come out. According to market research firm Mintel, laundry product sales fell 4% last year and dropped 9% over the past five years as consumers traded down from premium and even mid-level choices to those that simply got the job done.
Yet all the frugality didn't seem to dampen interest in sales of eco-friendly and sensitive-skin formulas. This is partly due to consumer values. Mintel found that nearly half of all shoppers rate the environment as “important” or “very important” in determining their laundry purchases. It's also the work of retailers and manufacturers, whose product innovations have kept the category relevant while also adding a dose of excitement.
“Demand for green products in this segment of the business does not seem to be as selective as in other areas,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets , Lakeland, Fla. “There are reasons besides saving the planet to utilize green and ‘free’ laundry products.”
Green brands, for one, are promoting themselves as top performers rather than just eco-friendly alternatives. San Francisco-based Method sells 8x concentrated detergents made with “Smartclean” technology, which claims to pack a mean cleaning punch in a quarter of the dosage other brands require. Throughout the laundry care industry, eco-positioned companies are talking tough about powerful cleaning action and being able to fight the toughest stains.
Recent tests have backed up these assertions. For its November issue, Consumer Reports rated more than 30 laundry detergents and found that several green brands such as Ecover, Mrs. Meyer's and Method scored in the top half. Seventh Generation's superconcentrated powder finished in the top 10 and received a “Recommended” mark from the organization.
Coupled with consumers' benevolent attitude towards the environment, functionality is that crucial step needed to gain mainstream acceptance, said Brian Sansoni, communications director with the American Cleaning Institute, the trade organization for the cleaning products industry.
“No matter how green a product is, if it wants to be successful it has to be convenient and it has to work,” he explained.
Companies have extended their green and allergy-sensitive innovations to products throughout the laundry category. Shoppers can now find all-natural stain removers, free-and-clear fabric softeners and biodegradable laundry powders. Even bleach, which according to Mintel saw sales fall 18% over the past five years due in part to environmental concerns, comes in a chlorine-free version.
Earth Friendly Products, a leading maker of green cleaners, offers several laundry options including a stain and odor remover, spray starch, prewash and a special laundry detergent for baby clothes.
“Over time we've expanded our offerings as we work with different retailers,” said Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, the company's director of marketing. “We're at the point now where we can tailor products to meet the needs of the marketplace.”
In addition to more choices and better performance, consumers also face less of a price sacrifice with an expanding list of mainstream and value brands now offering natural and “free and clear” formulas. Purex, for instance, offers a “Natural Elements” line that's actually outselling its conventional counterpart. Data from SymphonyIRI Group shows that sales of Natural Elements detergent grew 17% last year while sales of Purex's regular detergent dropped 1.8%.
“These products may be an easier point of entry to green living for novice green consumers,” stated Mintel in its recent report.
Some industry observers question the integrity of these brands' eco-credentials. In its review, Consumer Reports tells readers they “should be skeptical about green claims for laundry detergents because there are few or no governmental regulations for many of the claims.”
There are also no federal regulations requiring manufacturers to list ingredients, leading many consumer advocacy groups to advise shoppers to only buy products that do.
Various third-party certifiers have tried to assuage this skepticism, the Environmental Protection Agency and its “Design for the Environment” label being the most notable of these. Manufacturers also display their own labels and standards, like Earth Friendly Products' “Freedom Code,” which lists all the ingredients the company's products don't contain.
In some cases, retailers have taken it upon themselves to set standards. Whole Foods Market  recently developed an “Eco-Scale” that classifies cleaning products as red, orange, yellow or green depending on how natural the ingredients are. Safeway , meanwhile, promises that laundry products under its Bright Green private label are phosphate-free, non-toxic and never tested on animals.
Transparency and education, experts agree, should also extend to how people use the products. As detergents become more and more concentrated, it's imperative consumers use the right amount, and that companies show them how. The same goes for high-efficiency detergents, which can only be used in high-efficiency washing machines. If consumers don't use the product correctly, said Sansoni, then any sustainable changes are for naught.
“The most important part of using products sustainably is the consumer,” he said.
Ever since detergents went concentrated a few years ago, manufacturers have been looking for ways to make packaging even more eco-friendly and efficient. Earlier this year, Seventh Generation introduced a recyclable, compostable detergent bottle made from old cardboard and newspapers. Not to be outdone, competitor Method developed a bottle from recycled plastic, 25% of which comes from the North Pacific Gyre, a Texas-sized garbage patch located in the Pacific Ocean.
What consumers are most excited about, it turns out, is ditching the bottle entirely. Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Lakeland, Florida-based Publix Super Markets, said the popularity of mono dose detergent tablets like Dropps is the most notable trend in stores. The mono dose concept certainly isn't new, but manufacturers believe now's the right time because the tablets are concentrated, convenient and eco-friendly. Dropps recently partnered with Terracycle to allow consumers to mail in their used cases for recycling.
Look for these tablets to hit the laundry section in a big way next year, when Procter & Gamble rolls out Tide Pods. Originally slated for September release, P&G's consumer tests found the pods received the highest-ever scores for a laundry product, and so moved the rollout up to early 2012 to meet the anticipated demand.