"Am I going to die?" asked the panic-stricken woman on the other end of John Vlahakis' phone.
It wasn't a question Vlahakis, founder and president of Winnetka, Ill.-based Earth Friendly Products, usually faced. The reason for the call? The woman had inadvertently consumed a half-chardonnay, half-Dishmate cocktail.
"She was really worried," said Vlahakis.
She needn't have been. Though not meant as mixers, Earth Friendly Products such as Dishmate dishwashing liquid are made from nontoxic, plant-based, biodegradable ingredients. The product is one of a rapidly growing number of natural cleaning offerings on the market.
In the late 1960s, studies began revealing dangerous toxins in household cleaning products. Suspicion slowly built up in the public's mind like ring around the tub. Squeaky clean did not necessarily mean a clean bill of health.
Ecover marketed the first phosphate-free soap powder in 1980. Today, an extensive line of the Belgian company's products is sold throughout the United States and 19 other countries. Earth Friendly began with four products in 1993. Today, the company sells more than 60 different items. Green cleaning products—and brands—are popping up across store shelves like clusters of shiny soap bubbles. In 2005, 232 new products entered the market, up from 146 new products in 2004. According to SPINS, a San Francisco-based natural products research firm, sales of natural household cleaners and supplies reached $53.7 million in 2005, up 20 percent from 2004 sales. Today, consumers can find natural products made to clean everything from their clothes and their kids to their dogs and their driveways.
If actor Brad Pitt checked his goody bag at the Academy Awards, he would have found Ecover products. "It's amazing how much exposure we've gotten in just the past year," said Ecover's U.S. Sales and Marketing Manager Maureen Davis.
"Even just three to five years ago, we'd walk into a mainstream store to pitch our products and they'd look at us like, 'You guys are a bunch of organic fig-eaters, your stuff doesn't work and the whole thing's too touchy-feely for us,'" said Vlahakis. "Now they're coming to us. It's been a 360-degree turnaround. In the past six months in particular, we've had a tremendous amount of interest in our products."
A combination of continuing media attention to the effects of using toxic chemicals in the home, an awareness of the alternatives and the increasing popularity of natural products in general have all contributed to the sector's growth.
"People shopping in stores like Whole Foods are not there just for apples," said Steve Estabrooks, president of Waldport, Ore.-based Orange-Mate, which manufactures glass and surface cleaners as well as its flagship line of natural air freshener mists. "They're there to shop for everything, including cleaning supplies. They want to feel better about everything they're buying, not just produce."
Green storylines remain in the media. "Every time the price of gas goes up, there's an uptick of interest in 'going green,'" said Vlahakis, "and that awareness is permeating into all sectors of the market."
Balancing price and values
"People don't think twice about a three-and-a-half dollar latte," said Vlahakis, "but a three-and-a-half dollar bottle of dish soap—that seems to be a harder choice for people to make."
Maybe it's because consumer awareness about the dollars-and-cents value of cleaning green hasn't caught up with awareness of the category's save-the-planet values. For example, many natural cleaners are sold in higher concentrations than conventional cleaners. Money saved on packaging is passed on to consumers. Many natural laundry products have built-in fabric softeners, again saving the consumer money that would be spent to package and ship a separate fabric softening product.
Though natural grocery shoppers tend to be well educated about the products they buy, a new level of concern kicks in, said Vlahakis, when a parent's first child is born (and begins gnawing on items plucked from the floor). Concern for pets' health has also helped bring green cleaners into more homes.
"Americans are finally becoming more aware," said Ecover's Davis. Europeans have been buying natural cleaning products for years, she said, "but the U.S. is a really big country—it takes time."
"Europeans and Japanese, [especially], are very particular about their products, very quality conscious, and they're also willing to pay top dollar for high quality," Estabrooks said. Twenty-five percent of Orange-Mate's sales are to consumers outside the United States. "We see interest budding overseas," he said. "Then it usually follows over here."
A defining moment Unlike edibles with the organic label, natural cleaning products do not have industry-wide standards for what constitutes natural or green.
"Basically, anyone can say anything," said Cindy Rimer, vice president of sales for Vancouver, Wash.-based Bi-O-Kleen, whose products include Soy Blends Toilet Scrub and Bac-Out Stain & Odor Eliminator.
"Not having standards hurts us," Estabrooks said. "There's some hesitation in the minds of consumers about whether to trust if something is actually all-natural." He said there was a move a few years ago within the industry to come up with market-wide standards but the effort "fell through the cracks."
As an alternative, companies such as Bi-O-Kleen have participated in the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for Environment program, which tests products to ensure their ingredients list is accurate and complete. "It's quite a stringent process," Rimer said. "It took about two years. There are other services available, like Green Seal, where you pay for certification, but they allow a lot of things we'd never put into our products."
But do they work?
Natural cleaning products continue to evolve. Along with a complete branding redesign, Bi-O-Kleen recently introduced several new laundry products, including one formulated to work in cold water to save energy. Orange-Mate will shortly begin distribution of its Fabric Refresher spray in lemon, orange and tea tree scents. Ecover has recently introduced a new Ecological Limescale Remover. Earth Friendly has brought out a green answer to Febreze, called Eco Breeze. In addition, the company is working on corn-based, biodegradable bottles for its products, Vlahakis said.
A new entry to the marketplace, Michigan-based ChemFree Solutions, is readying a line of enzyme-based green cleaning products. Companies such as Bi-O-Kleen incorporate the crud-blasting power of enzymes in their cleaning arsenal, but ChemFree is the first to develop a line that consists exclusively of enzyme-based products. The yet-to-be-named cleaners will work on mold, counters and floors.
"Hospitals use enzymes to clean their surgical instruments," said ChemFree founder and Chief Executive Denny Voss, "because enzymes both remove organic material and sterilize the instruments." Enzymes work as catalysts to chemical reactions—in the case of cleaning, by speeding up biodegrading, as most dirt is organic material.
Voss developed his enzyme-based formulas to use in his ceramic tile cleaning business and found the products so effective, he started ChemFree to develop and distribute them. Most other cleaners on the market use solvents and surfactants based either on chemicals or plant-based oils. "They both work on the same principles," said Voss, "but enzymes clean with a microbial approach. … It's a more powerful way to clean."
As far as marketing green cleaning products within stores, manufacturers strongly suggest sampling and product demonstrations. "We sell cases a day inside stores doing demos," said Orange-Mate's Estabrooks. "For our products, smelling is believing."
Drinking, however, is not recommended, even though the frightened woman who called Earth Friendly (who later felt fine) after toasting with Dishmate, "did say it tasted pretty good," said Vlahakis.
Click here to order a copy of Market Overview 2005.
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 46-47