Environmentalism Begins at Home

Shoppers go hands on with the green household products market.

One would think that most consumers don’t give Mother Earth a second thought as they go about their shopping. So from that point of view, the following statistics are surprising. 71% of consumers say they at least sometimes consider the environment when they shop. Over one in four say they regularly or always keep it in mind (1). Now, there’s a difference between thinking green and actually going green, but it’s reassuring to know the vast majority of people are aware that they can vote for the environment with their dollars, and improve the ecology of their daily lives as well.

Eco-friendly product companies are working hard to bring consumers options that work and that present a clear picture of their environmental impact, inside and outside the home.

There’s “Green” and then There’s Green
So many product launches and mainstream brands put forth a green face today. Whether they use clear, meaningful environmental claims on labels or slap a blade of grass and the unqualified phrase “eco-friendly” on there, consumers have to try hard  not to purchase such products. But there are companies and products with eco-friendliness at their core, with mission statements and back stories centered on sustainability.

Brands focused on the environment must contend with big brand laundry detergents, for example, that offer their own legitimately green formulas. These “eco-centric” brands must try even harder to cut through the rest of the green clutter and show consumers what they can do.

Natural cleaning products have indeed become mainstream, and these products are readily available to consumers, notes J.R. Rigley, president and CMO for J.R. Watkins, Winona, MN. “Customers, particularly women, are looking for products they can feel good about using for themselves, their families and in their homes,” he says. One way brands can differentiate themselves is through history and reputation, Rigley explains, referencing his company’s 145 years as a natural products provider as a factor consumers consider.

Erika Bruhn, director of marketing and brand at Klean Kanteen, Chico, CA, says her company’s stainless steel hydration bottles “start conversations and are a badge of a personal commitment to sustainability.” But it goes beyond the bottles, which she says are designed to give people a safe and healthy alternative to plastic. “Over the past 10 years, we have stayed true to our values to grow responsibly by, in part, elevating the environmental and social values of business and community. As a registered benefits corporation, we use our business and brand as a force for positive change,” says Bruhn.

She says her company works to unite the voices of like-minded companies to elevate awareness and create solutions for eliminating single-use plastic bottles. “For example, we have been actively working with the Fairmont Hotel in Seattle to reduce single-use plastic water bottles in their hotel rooms and gym, and have longstanding partnerships with several music festivals like Pickathon, Floydfest and The Festy, working to green their events with the Klean Kanteen Cup Karma Program, and model a more sustainable experience to fans. That’s music to our ears!” Bruhn says, adding, “We define our purpose and measure our success by People and Planet, not just Profit.”

In agreement with this ethos is Mona Weiss, chief creative officer of Eco Nuts, Marina Del Rey, CA, who says companies that are green through-and-through have an advantage in the marketplace. She says her company is visibly committed to the environment. “It’s about showing the consumer that what you have is an honestly green product at a comparable price,” says Weiss. “Consumers may not see every little thing we do, but it shows as a whole. We use the fact that we started out as 100% green to our advantage. We aren’t doing it as part of a marketing ploy to bring out another line of products. We are doing it because we genuinely care.”

She explains that the company’s products are all nearly plastic free, which she describes as unheard of in the cleaning products industry. One thing all green companies can do to differentiate themselves is to seek certification, Weiss adds. She says U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification and non-GMO certification are two of the most important, along with fair trade certification.

“We are participating in a market that is driving the improvement and development of healthy, ethical, eco-friendly products by customer demand,” Weiss says. It is hard to compete with companies that already have prime placement, full distribution and millions of advertising dollars, she tells us, so smaller companies don’t tend to compete with them on that level. Instead, they use consumer education and word of mouth. Consumers are learning to look in smaller niche stores and on the Internet for the products that align with their lifestyles, instead of local grocery stores.

Ingredient transparency is the primary way Susan Griffin Black, co-CEO and founder of Small World Trading Company, makers of EO and EveryOne products, San Rafael, CA, says her company separates itself from mainstream products with a green label. “As a company, we are very open about what goes into our products and why. We are also very transparent about our manufacturing process and our packaging choices,” she says.

Griffin Black explains that another way her company competes is by ensuring its soap and personal care products are safe yet effective, saying, “Effectiveness is so important to us—it is a priority for us to formulate products using safe, healthy ingredients that also actually work.”

With cleaning products originally created in the garage of a professional cleaner, Cindy Rimer, vice president of sales and marketing and director of Biokleen Industries, Inc., Vancouver, WA, says retail shoppers appreciate the brand’s 25-year history as a family-owned and -operated manufacturer. She says the company is growing in the conventional market along with other natural companies, while continuing to launch products that appeal to new demographics. Customers turn to her brand, she says, “simply because their traditional multinational corporation has lost credibility when it comes to environmental and sustainability efforts, just like there are cleaning companies who lose credibility by putting out green products that don’t clean very well.”

If truly eco-conscious companies weren’t resonating with consumers, Weiss feels, they would not stick around long and would lose out to the big guys. But this is often not the case, and the overall growth that lots of smaller independent companies are enjoying is due in part to consumer awareness of “greenwashing,” or deceptive green marketing, and inherent mistrust of  larger companies because of it, according to Weiss.

Green consumers are highly educated about ingredients and products, and will shy away from companies they associate with other product lines that are not environmentally friendly. “The brand may claim to care about the environment so they put out a natural label, but on the other hand, they are still creating and selling millions of dollars of polluting or toxic products. The irony is not lost on the consumer,” says Weiss. Products, for example, that claim to be “eco-friendly” but utilize fake dyes, fragrances and sodium lauryl sulfate irk these consumers. She also points to the negative press that Clorox received for buying the Sierra Club’s endorsement for its Green Works line.

Griffin Black goes further in describing where some companies fall short for green consumers. “There are many products on the market with the words “natural” and “green” on the label, and maybe they don’t include some of the bad stuff such as parabens or dyes. But when you look at the ingredient list, they still include harsh chemical cleansers or synthetic fragrances, or they’re tested on animals,” she says, adding that it’s important for consumers to train themselves to spot misleading marketing strategies.

Rigley says that in its naturally derived cleaners, his company follows an ingredient Freedom Code. This means they avoid a host of specific ingredients, such as ammonia, formaldehyde donors, phthalates, sulfuric acid and synthetic polymers.

For its part, Rimer says, specializing in plant- and mineral-based cleaning technologies is all her company has ever done. The updated Federal Trade Commission guidelines on green marketing and advertising claims will help companies avoid misleading consumers, she explains. “It hasn’t been uncommon for a cleaning product company to highlight a natural fragrance in bold type and with a picture, while the bulk of the active ingredients in the product, or the bulk of their product line in general, are made from synthetics,” Rimer says.

It is not just cleaning product marketing, but also food marketing that creates consumer confusion, Rimer points out. For Griffin Black, this ties in with the fact that more people seem to be educating themselves about personal care products like they have long been doing with food. She says, “Recently we’ve seen some powerful and widespread consumer education campaigns focused on the safety of household and personal care products. As a result people are starting to make educated choices when it comes to the products they bring into their homes and use on their bodies.”

Multiple factors drive innovation in green products of all types. On the one hand, consumers expect continued improvement in the environmental and health impact of products. In shoppers’ minds, there is also often a perceived gap in product efficacy to be made up when natural ingredients or non-traditional materials are used.

In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of its products while providing value to consumers, Rigley says his company recently introduced hand soap refills in 24-oz. PETE bottles. He explains that the bottles are equivalent to two regular hand soaps, and are more easily recyclable than common pouch materials used with other refill products. “Additionally, they provide 47% more value to the consumer and use 25% less plastic than two hand soaps,” Rigley says, adding that the company also plans to launch value-size lotions to address similar concerns.

Consumers can often find parallels between environment-related news headlines and the innovation green companies are doing. Griffin Black says The New York Times and National Public Radio recently reported on research findings involving the micro plastic beads in some cosmetics and toothpastes, which are apparently ending up in lakes and oceans worldwide, with high concentrations in the Great Lakes.

“A recent research paper gives circumstantial evidence that these microparticle polyethylene beads wash straight down the drain, and because they are so small, are not captured by sewer treatment plants. Instead, they end up in our watersheds and accumulate back up the food chain by making their way into the bellies of fish,” says Griffin Black. She points to the alternative her company’s exfoliating product represents. It uses candelilla wax, naturally found on the candelilla shrub native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, to achieve an exfoliating texture. Griffin Black says it is biodegradable, and never harmful to the environment or wildlife.

Personal experience can also guide green companies toward more effective products, as Rimer illustrates. “When our kids became very active in youth sports, we realized that as much as we love them, they can really stink,” she says. This served as inspiration for the company to combine existing laundry liquid technology with a few new ingredients to address offending odors. “We were able to tackle a problem experienced by many active adults and families,” she says.

Changes to the label can also be impactful, Rimer explains. She says her company has sought to maintain credibility and transparency through third-party certifications like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment or Whole Foods Market’s Eco Scale rating program. It has also relied on third-party prepared Material Safety Data Sheets, along with simple ingredient disclosure to build trust with consumers and retailers. “We recently redesigned our labels in order to be more transparent and to improve the messaging and use instructions for the consumer,” Rimer says.

Regarding ingredient disclosure, there are positives and negatives associated with using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients version of names on labels. “It’s good for transparency, but a consumer might be afraid of a word like tocopherol when it’s just another name for vitamin E,” Rimer says. She adds that her company has also continued to incorporate new technologies over the years, often in an effort to improve the performance or sustainability of an existing product.

Bruhn points to the supply chain and manufacturing process as means of ensuring a product’s sustainability. She says her company addresses this through various measures, including: establishing supplier relations and production management in accordance with a custom Supplier Code of Conduct, third-party social responsibility audits, regular supplier facility visits by representatives of the company along with on-site observation of production, materials and product safety testing and quality assurance inspections. “When we consider sustainability, we don’t just look at the features and benefits of product; we look at product lifecycle with a cradle to cradle mindset,” says Bruhn.

The materials chosen also factor into the sustainability equation for companies like Bruhn’s. 18/8 food-grade stainless steel and BPA-free polypropylene #5 for the bottle caps are two main features. She describes the composition of one bottle in particular. It features no paint or plastic, and is crafted using sustainably harvested bamboo, food-grade silicone and stainless steel. WF

1. B. Hamed, “Less Than 100: How Percentages Show True Understanding of Green Trends,” Sustainable Brands, Apr. 3, 2013, http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/communications/less-100-how-percentages-show-true-understanding-green-trends, accessed Mar. 2, 2014.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2014