Consumers and Sustainability: A Paradigm Shift for Household Cleaners

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Consumers and Sustainability: A Paradigm Shift for Household Cleaners

Conversations with consumers about the household cleaning category reveal a shift in the way consumers think about why and how they clean their home. Formerly, the act of cleaning was a form of “germ warfare,” and entailed a combative relationship between consumers and their environment. However, consumers now talk about working with nature, not against it, to restore balance to their home environment. Chemical-based ingredients such as ammonia and bleach that were once heralded as safe, because they killed bacteria, microbes and viruses, are increasingly being viewed as hazardous due to the danger of ingesting, inhaling and absorbing such products. These concerns are heightened among individuals with young children or pets, and among those with allergies or special sensitivities.

Among sustainability-minded consumers, chemical cleaners are seen as inherently taxing on the earth in their production, due to the fact that they are synthetically created, often using coal and petroleum. Conversely, sustainable household cleaners epitomize safety due to the absence of noxious chemicals, and the presence of recognizable benign ingredients such as citrus, vinegar and baking soda.

For consumers, the olfactory experience of household cleaners is evidence of a household cleaner’s naturalness or harsh chemical makeup. Consumers say that “the nose knows,” and take a product’s institutional or heavily perfumed smell as an immediate giveaway of its chemical makeup and toxicity.

Many consumers begin their adoption of sustainable household cleaners with “free and clear” versions of well-known conventional brands, which boast of having no dyes or perfumes, or to green-positioned brands from leading conventional marketers. According to the 2009 ImagePower Top Green Brands survey by Landor Associates, 68 percent of U.S. respondents recognized Clorox Co.’s Green Works brand is a green brand, such that Green Works ranked as the top sustainable brand in the United States, edging out veteran natural personal care brands such as Burt’s Bees (acquired by Clorox in 2007) and Tom’s of Maine (acquired by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006).

Within the household cleaners category, packaging communications that convey “natural” are most effective in cuing sustainability in household cleaners. To emphasize the natural and sustainable qualities of a household cleaning product, manufacturers, marketers and retailers should:

• Highlight “plant-based” formulations where applicable.
• List recognizable, food-grade ingredients on the front panel.
• Highlight key absences (for example, “No bleach, phosphates, ammonia, parabens”) to mirror the mental checklist that consumers perform when evaluating the harshness of household cleaners.
• Use simple designs with a restrained, natural color palette.
• Note if the product is a concentrate formulation or available as a refill.

In its introduction to “Sustainability: The Rise of Consumer Responsibility,” The Hartman Group noted that even the “best intentioned, most committed” sustainability consumers will modify their behavior in response to changing financial conditions. Even so, The Hartman Group anticipated that any trade-offs and cutbacks are less likely to be made in product categories that sustainability consumers view as essential to their quality of life, including food, personal care and household cleaners.

In keeping with that projection, Packaged Facts finds that purchasing rates for sustainable versions of household cleaners remain robust. Among the adult respondents to a February 2009 Packaged Facts online survey, 38 percent indicated that they had used natural or organic household cleaning/maintenance products or laundry products within the previous 12 months. Of the total respondents who had purchased these products, 79 percent had purchased household cleaning/maintenance products, and 66 percent had purchased laundry products.

Percent of Adults Who Buy Natural or Organic Household Cleaning/ Maintenance or Laundry Care Products, February 2009
(U.S. adults)   

Source: Packaged Facts online poll of 2,606 adults, conducted in February 2009.

More broadly, consumer convictions related to sustainability remain largely unchanged. According to a spring 2009 Experian Simmons consumer survey, three-fourths of U.S. adults feel a personal obligation to be environmentally responsible, and two-thirds believe that companies should help them in that goal. In addition, two-thirds indicate that they would buy eco-friendly products if those products were less expensive.

Given this robust consumer base and the ever-more-compelling combinations of personal, environmental, social, and economic motivations for adopting sustainable products, the current recession has not derailed the movement of these products further into the mainstream.

This article, the second of a four-part series, draws from “Consumers and Sustainability: Household Cleaners” (September 2009), a joint publication of The Hartman Group and Packaged Facts. (