Cleaner, Greener Household Cleaners

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The caution from EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) raises alarms: “Hazardous industrial chemicals lurk in far too many bottles and boxes under Americans’ sinks and on laundry room shelves.” To compile the guide, EWG reviewed more than 2,000 popular household cleaning products and determined:

  • 53% of cleaning products assessed by EWG contain ingredients known to harm the lungs
  • 22% contain chemicals reported to cause asthma to develop in otherwise healthy individuals

As awareness about such concerns grows, consumers are making the switch to cleaner cleaning supplies. For Michelle Perkins, it was a personal scare that led to a major shift: “When my daughter was 3 I found her playing with a bottle of bleach in the bathroom,” Perkins shares. “I immediately went through the house tossing out all products that were toxic—I didn’t have much left in my cupboards.” Perkins began searching for ways to clean without resorting to products that can harm health and damage the environment, and that lead to the creation of the Counter Culture brand of probiotic cleaning products—Perkins is the company’s founder.

“My story is not unique; we all have concerns around chemicals and what they’re doing to our bodies,” Perkins tells WholeFoods. “And we now have access to information that helps us understand why every Saturday afternoon after deep cleaning the house we needed to lie down due to a pounding headache or our hands were red and sensitive. Knowing that making changes to what chemicals we put in our house can have a positive impact on our health in the short term and long term and is better for the environment makes buying natural and environmentally friendly home cleaning products a no-brainer.”

The shift taking place in this category is part of the larger consumer interest in healthy living, adds Ramona Roof, Director of Marketing at CleanWell. “The growing interest in green household cleaning products is an extension of the overall explosion of interest in clean food and personal care products, and environmental protection issues,” she explains. “On the environmental front, the regular news reports about issues ranging from dangerous pesticides to declining insect populations has raised awareness of the cocktail of chemicals that we are exposed to on an everyday basis. That includes substances like bleach and quaternary ammonium (quats), antimicrobials, and disinfectants widely used in cleaning products that have been linked to eye, skin, and respiratory irritations, and toxicity to aquatic life. Factors like these contribute to rising sales of green household cleaning products.”

Mat Franken, Founder & CEO of Aunt Fannie’s, adds, “It’s no longer good enough for a product to just ‘work.’ It needs to have a strong message and mission, and stand for something a consumer can get behind.” Aunt Fannie’s consumers, he notes, rank their health and wellness as their top priority. “Consumers care about what they put in their bodies, they care about what they put on their body, and now they care about the products they use everyday in their home.”

As consumer awareness grows, so will demand for eco-cleaning supplies: Roof points to a 2019 Research and Markets forecast predicting that globally, sales are expected to surge to USD $27.8 billion by the end of 2024. Igor Bekker, Co-Founder of MADE OF, adds, “We recently ran a quant study with a sample of 250 new parents. The study focused on asking parents what drives their interest in ‘natural’ products and specifically which features. Perhaps not surprising, but social media and greenwashing has done the job of bringing awareness to the consumer. Blog articles, Facebook groups and myriad other sources have spun off claims around the risks of using generic synthetic based products.”

Also pointing to the growing awareness, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, President & CEO of ECOS, points out, “Consumers have more access than ever before to ingredient information, especially since California passed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act in 2017, which as of January 1st of this year requires companies to disclose ingredients online (and on pack in 2021). People are searching on their phones, on their computers, looking for information to help protect their families as we see a rise in different diseases. They’re finally understanding that it’s not just what we put in our bodies but also what is on us and around us. As people become more aware of what’s around them, they want to mitigate their exposure to these toxins. We now know that children are born with nearly 200 toxic chemicals in their body, and this is a serious concern. I think consumers understand it; they’re embracing it and they know that one of the simple things they can do to protect the health of their loved ones and our shared planet is to purchase environmentally friendly home cleaning products.”

In terms of who’s buying, the answer is pretty much everyone. “Interest in green household cleaning products cuts across all ages,” says Roof. “Natural products retailers can drive sales by selecting products that clearly state the benefits on-pack—CleanWell’s packaging, for example, states that each household cleaning products ‘Kills 99.99% of household germs and viruses botanically’—and by working with vendors with strong retail programs, including advertising, sample and influencer campaigns.”

Taking a closer look, Vlahakis-Hanks says, “We see Millennials leading the way in the purchase of environmentally friendly products; GenXers as well are becoming far more committed to purchasing green brands. It’s really a new way and a new day, because no longer are consumers buying what their parents bought; they’re actually doing the research themselves and looking to their peers. They’re voting with their dollars and supporting brands that share their values.”

Bekker breaks it down even more: “Our CRM analysis shows that younger generations ages 25-35 are the early adopters. MADE OF organic products are about 20% more expensive than ‘natural’ products or synthetic-based products. This is due to the higher cost of organic ingredients, additional testing, and manufacturing in the USA. We see that states like California, New York and Texas have higher adoption for cleaner products.”

What’s Next In Eco-Cleaning

Staying on trend is important, says Aunt Fannie’s Mat Franken. “Aunt Fannie’s has found our biggest successes when retailers prioritize the consumers’ needs and allow them to discover the next big thing. Our best partners give our brand priority on end caps, in shippers, and off-shelf promotions.”

So what is the next big thing? We asked the experts to weigh in.

Innovation: “New cleaning product companies are launching at a rapid rate,” says Ramona Roof, CleanWell. “Many of these companies are niche or focused brands developed by large and established conventional brands. Trends like this are a clear indication that green cleaning is moving into the mainstream. With new companies and increased competition comes innovation—more sustainable packaging materials, improved product delivery formats, and evolving methods of distribution, to name a few. Retailers will have to exercise good judgement in making their inventory selections to choose truly green and eco-friendly products from companies with missions and values that resonate with their shoppers.”

MADE OF’s Igor Bekker adds, “I think the category will continue to expand in retail. The CPG category is not a sustainable direct business due to low average order values and high shipping costs. Consumers will look to marketplaces and stores to find products. Because the shelf space is limited and the shelf assortment is bare, the marketplaces will continue to dominate innovation and variety in this category.”

Concentration: “On the manufacturing side, with a more educated consumer we have to deliver the most authentic products to those consumers, and that means looking at the entire life cycle of a product, looking at all the inputs, making—as we do—the most sustainable products that we can, and I think other businesses need to do the same,” says Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, ECOS. “In addition, we’re seeing a move away from plastics and toward the reduction of water and more concentration and compaction, like our new ECOSNext liquidless laundry detergent; we’re also seeing Free & Clear become the predominant request in our product lines.”

Bulk buying: “I see a move to more bulk based buying across the store,” says Counter Culture’s Michelle Perkins. “Consumers now bring their own bags to the supermarket and their own refillable cups to the cafe. Specifically for the cleaning aisle, I see a future where customers can bring their own bottles to the store to fill up on their favourite cleaners. I think that all brands will continue to clean up their ingredients list—in the short term this will show in the use of chemical fragrance versus essential oils. I hope that we move away from the standard of 99.9% kill rate as being an indicator of efficacy.”

Non-toxic results
Of course, products need to deliver or consumers won’t repurchase, so educating on the active ingredients is key. “Our typical consumer already shops clean and green,” says Perkins. “They are engaged in their and their family’s health and wellness and want to find the best solutions not only for themselves but also their pets and the environment. Keeping a well-curated selection of the latest sustainable product offerings is important, but the key is having staff as trusted subject matter experts on the product suite to help consumers who are looking for the best solution for their home and family. I shop in natural stores because I want to buy the most sustainable, healthy products for my family but I can’t keep on top of all the innovations—being able to ask questions and trusting the answers is important to me.”

Counter Culture products, Perkins continues, are brewed using 13 strains of probiotic bacteria. “During the fermentation process the bacteria interact with each other creating bio-compounds that act like surfactants and which are essential to break down dirt and grime on your counter tops. This means we don’t need to add any synthetic or man-made chemicals into the formulation, which is a great option for anyone who is trying to reduce the chemical load in their homes. Also, we only use essential oils to fragrance our products. I have read that some manufacturers use the term ‘fragrance’ as a generic place to hide all sorts of things they don’t want to disclose.”

The fragrances in CleanWell’s products are made from citrus fruit essential oils, says Roof, who adds, “The germ-killing power in CleanWell’s household cleaning products comes from Thymol, a proprietary antibacterial active derived from the essential oils of common cooking herbs like thyme and oregano,” shares Roof. “Ancient Roman, Greek and Indian communities used it as an antiseptic for thousands of years. CleanWell’s disinfecting sprays and wipes kill 99% of household germs botanically yet do not require warning statements or rinsing after use.”

At ECOS, says Vlahakis-Hanks, “Our plant-powered ingredients do the same heavy lifting that their toxic counterparts do. We utilize plant-derived surfactants from sources like coconuts in lieu of petroleum-derived surfactants. I recently had the chance to travel to Vanuatu to meet with coconut farmers, because we really believe in supply chain transparency and want to understand where our raw materials come from. We’re utilizing these clean, green ingredients that do a wonderful job; we’re utilizing enzymes, which increases efficacy and soil and dirt removal; we’re using essential oils, which lend aromatherapeutic properties to our products.”

When directing consumers, Bekker advises, it’s important to distinguish between surface cleaning and disinfecting. “The latter is much harder to do using ‘natural’ formulations,” he maintains. “MADE OF’s hand and dish soaps are castile-based. This nontoxic, biodegradable base is a great solution for any cleaning needs.”

Also note: “Even natural ingredients can be bad for human health,” says Franken. “Aunt Fannie’s seeks out third-party experts for certifications like Dermatologist-tested, Hypoallergenic, and EWG Verified.”

Staples for DIYers

In addition to the brands on your shelf, consumers are interested in ingredients that they can use to make their own household cleaners—castile soap, baking soda, essential oils, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil…the list goes on! Consumers who are interested in DIYing it can get inspiration at www.MyMerryMessyLife.com—the site features natural cleaning recipes from Sara McFall, who also wrote a book on the topic: Detox Your Home: A simple guide to remove the toxins from home. Cleaning, laundry, bath, body, beauty and food products. Includes shopping lists, 80+ … & all the tools you need!

Merchandising strategies
“Focus on educating the consumer through signage, social media and other channels,” Roof advises retailers. “Post news stories about dangerous household chemicals, highlight research about hazardous chemicals that are found in conventional cleaning products, host ‘Clean Cleaning’ or ‘Flu Prevention Techniques’ events to share information, and more.”

Social media, says Vlahakis-Hanks, is the most powerful way to reach both Millennials and GenXers. “They spend a significant amount of time on social media platforms, and you really want to deliver them the education where they are— Instagram, Facebook. This is where they live, and we want to deliver powerful educational messages to those platforms.”

Bekker also stresses the importance of keeping consumers informed. “Product and category education is much needed right at the retail shelf. Whether it is in the form of video or take away pamphlets, retailers must educate consumers on the added benefits of cleaner products.” The biggest concern with the majority of the market, he adds, is whether a cleaner product can perform as well as a synthetic, so spotlighting active ingredients and their actions is key.

Tips from Perkins: “Stay on top of consumer trends and needs and help consumers understand them by creating unique events/promotions that consumers will discover and learn from in your stores and not in other channels. Putting together like-minded products that deliver on leading-edge concepts like ‘Microbiome Friendly’ or ’Regenerative Farmed’ will continue to drive your retail point of difference. And, give small leading edge brands like mine a fighting chance for retail display opportunities.”

Also take cues from what works in other categories. Vlahakis-Hanks explains, “Retailers need to celebrate the inside of the aisles like they celebrate the outside of the aisles. Retailers have done a wonderful job around the perimeter of the store, telling the story of where the produce comes from, who the farmers are behind it, and there’s a real celebration there. I’d like to see the same celebration occur in the cleaning products aisles; let’s tell the stories. Here at ECOS, we’re woman-owned, and we make our products in carbon-neutral, water-neutral, zero-waste facilities here in the U.S. I’d love to see more signage about these stories at the point of purchase in center store, telling the stories of these brands. Now we realize that it’s not just important where our produce comes from; it’s important where our cleaning products come from.”

Finally, consider dedicating more space to the category if possible, adds Vlahakis-Hanks. “As consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of buying green household cleaning products and they’re demanding more green options, retailers need to make sure their assortments are reflective of consumers’ needs. I think retailers need to allocate more shelf space to these very important products.“ WF

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