Skip navigation

Sustainability Meets Real World in This Category

A few years ago eco-friendly, household cleaning products seemed poised to accelerate in food retailing. Growth and a flood of new launches from big consumer packaged goods companies appeared to signal a category on the rise. This included everything from dishwashing liquids to all-purpose cleaners.

But then something happened. The recession hit and consumers increasingly questioned whether they could justify paying more for these products.

A recent article in the New York Times detailed this shift and pointed to a drop in both sales and new-product introductions in the category. Product launches had soared from 29 in 2007 to 144 in 2008, only to fall to 105 the next year, according to Mintel data cited in the article.

It seems this is a tale of two types of green household products. Those from independent brands, such as Method and Seventh Generation, now appear to be rebounding in share relative to some similar products from big CPGs, according to an analysis from Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. mentioned in the article.

What's going on here? Independent brands are more likely to have customers with higher incomes who are also dedicated to buying green products, the article pointed out.

Meanwhile, some retailers known for environmental leadership are nurturing that reputation to their advantage, recent SN reporting indicates. Whole Foods is romancing the eco-friendly cleaners category with a new corporate blog contest that asks shoppers why they want to give their homes a greener clean. It will select five winners at random, each of whom will receive a range of green products, from spray cleaners to sponges.

Whole Foods is also underscoring its ethical leadership with the launch of a new program to audit products in the household cleaning category. The natural foods retailer will have a third-party audit these items to rate them for environmental and sourcing standards under a new color-coded system. Items that don't meet the standards will be reformulated or eliminated.

Meanwhile, Fresh & Easy, a retailer known for its environmental leadership and organic and natural products, is attempting to grow the household category with the launch of a new line called “Green Things.” This is a store-label effort for household cleaning and paper products that uses natural cleaning agents and sustainable paper resources, the retailer said.

The upshot is that some retailers already known for their eco leadership are being innovative — through enhanced marketing, rating scales and new product launches — to gain a further edge. This poses a challenge for mainstream retailers that haven't yet developed a reputation for selling environmentally friendly products.

But this isn't just a story about cleaning products. It's important to watch how all eco-friendly categories fare as the economy gradually rebounds. The answer will help determine the future of sustainability across food retailing.