Here's a dilemma that continues to plague many natural products stores: Even the best customers often split their loyalties—they go to a naturals store for food and to the supermarket for cleaning products. The dichotomy exists because there's a lingering perception that environmentally safe cleaning products don't work.
That might have been true just five years ago. However, thanks to research and burgeoning competition, natural cleaning products root out dirt, grease and grime as effectively as their mainstream commercial counterparts, but without the irritants and carcinogens. About eight companies provide a full complement of products: laundry and dish detergents, all-purpose heavy-duty cleaners, glass cleaners, dish soap and even "bleaching" products.
"A few years ago, people chose natural cleaners not because they worked, but because they believed in the philosophy of the company," says Stephanie Steiner, a grocery buyer and merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. "Today, consumers have an expectation that these products will actually work. The cleaning ability of the products now is very good. Expectations of customers are being met."
Consumers are increasingly interested in natural products, a fact reflected by national sales data. According to San Francisco-based SPINS' market research, cleaning product sales in naturals stores were up 22 percent for the 12 months that ended September 2002 compared with the previous year. Some natural cleaning products are sold in mass-market stores, but sales totals are too small to show up in market data. Through all channels, green cleaning products sales total about $50 million.
The good news for manufacturers and retailers is that natural cleaning products hold only a speck of market share in the total cleaning category. Sales of all cleaning products are estimated at more than $100 billion annually in the United States. There is plenty of room for sales growth.
Shelf space for the category in Wild Oats Markets has grown significantly during the last five years, says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for the Boulder, Colo., company. Wild Oats would like to dedicate even more space to capture shoppers' attention. She says if customers know there is a full line of cleaning products available, they might not go to other stores to buy these high-margin products.
"It's just a matter of getting people to try these products. We're trying to get [manufacturers] to provide more sample sizes," Tuitele says.
Telling The Story
Although consumers understand the benefits of organically grown food, many don't see the benefits of natural cleaning products. They don't know the dangers of mainstream cleaning products. Most have a petrochemical base that is extremely effective at lifting an armpit stain from a white shirt, but is dangerous to inhale and irritating to the skin. These products are particularly problematic for the 11 million people in the United States with chemical sensitivities.
The ingredients in many cleaning products are considered hazardous, but manufacturers are not required to display them on packaging. Showing the ingredients, manufacturers say, would reveal their proprietary product recipes. Fortunately, most natural products manufacturers list their ingredients.
Lynn Marie Bower, author of Creating a Healthy Household (Healthy House Institute, 2000), is one of the nation's experts on chemical sensitivities and hazardous household products. She explains that gases emitted from cleaners, solvents, polishes and other household cleaning products are hazardous.
"Indoor home environments are commonly five to 10 times more polluted than the outdoor environment, even if you live in a big city," she says.
Natural cleaning products rely on plant-based and other nontoxic materials to act as cleaning agents, explains Steve Zeitler, executive manager of Citra-Solv LLC, the Danbury, Conn., maker of environmentally friendly cleaning products. Manufacturers have developed blends of various materials to make the cleaners effective, he says.
"There is a bit of art to creating great products," Zeitler says. "We have to make sure it works because we don't want consumers going back to the regular stuff."
The primary ingredients in many natural cleaning products come from citrus. Oil pressed from orange, lime and lemon rinds and grapefruit seeds is highly acidic and effective for cleaning. The oils are used as the basis for surfactants—chemical compounds formulated to bust dirt and grease. In addition to citrus, manufacturers use a variety of other plant-based oils from coconut, soy, corn, peppermint, tea tree, clover and geranium.
The oils are refined and usually combined with minerals, salts, sodas and plant enzymes. The combinations are chemical compounds developed through extensive testing and research. For example, Bi-O-Kleen laundry powder contains soda ash; zeolites; sodium citrate; vegetable fiber chelators; sodium percarbonate; grapefruit seed and pulp extracts; orange peel extracts; natural corrosion inhibitors; surfactants, degreasers and conditioners from coconut; low pH silicates and sodium sulfate.
Several companies are making oxygenated products that can be used in place of regular bleach, which is a dangerous liquid with a chlorine base ingredient. The oxygenated products are formulations of various cleaning agents manufactured into crystal, powder or liquid forms. When mixed with water, they release oxygen bubbles that attach to stains and break them up. It is similar to the bubbling action of hydrogen peroxide, which also is used in some natural cleaners. These oxygenated products can be used to remove spots from fabrics, brighten laundry or clean tile, grout and other surfaces.
Some products have no aroma, but most have a mildly citrus scent. The scent doesn't enhance cleaning ability.
Many mass-market companies have introduced "orange" products and are generously using the "natural" label as a marketing gimmick. Although the products do contain plant oils, they're also loaded with other chemicals to boost their efficacy.
Consumers should not be fooled. The term natural can be loosely applied; there are no standards or regulations to govern its use, but it should indicate that the product uses plant-based materials for the majority of its ingredients.
The term biodegradable also is used loosely. Technically, biodegradable means that a product breaks down into water, carbon dioxide and minerals, and is harmless to the environment. Just about everything, however, is biodegradable. What's important is the amount of time it takes a compound to degrade, and if it is harmless to the environment during the process. Most manufacturers say their products are biodegradable, but they don't say how long it takes. Most cleaning products in naturals stores are formulated to break down safely and quickly—usually within a month.
Retailers should emphasize the health and environmental advantages of natural cleaning products, says Zeitler. For personal health, using the products eliminates exposure to fumes and chemicals that can affect the lungs and permeate households. On the environmental level, the basis for natural cleaners is a variety of sustainable, agricultural products, and less pollution from the chemicals' use.
Zeitler says: "We don't have to go out and drill for oil. These products are made from renewable resources."
Joseph P. Lewandowski is a Durango, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 32, 40
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 40