When Fantastik Herbal Mist and Orange Energy Pine-Sol appeared on conventional supermarket shelves, it was clear that green cleaning products had expanded beyond the straw-bale house and into the suburban tract home.
According to figures from the San Francisco-based market-research firm SPINS, sales of natural cleaning products reached $33.1 million for the 52 weeks that ended Feb. 22, up 20.3 percent from the year-earlier period.
The category is so popular with consumers that mainstream manufacturers are adding natural ingredients to their petrochemical-based toilet bowl cleaners and laundry detergents. Mr. Clean and Lysol now come in orange-oil formulas, as do products ranging from furniture polish to air fresheners.
"It's kind of amusing, actually," said John Vlahakis, president and founder of Earth Friendly Products in Winnetka, Ill. "I had a discussion with Clorox where they said, 'Fantastik Orange must have made a pretty big impact on your orange [cleaning products] sales.' I just laughed and told them, 'It's a me-too product. If anything, it's helping legitimize what we've been doing for 10 years.'"
Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation sees mainstream orange-oil products as "sort of quasi-natural," said Senior Marketing Manager Janice Shade. "If anything, they're getting the public to notice natural cleaners. We haven't seen them make too much impact on our sales."
SPINS reports that Seventh Generation natural cleaning products sales were up 30.7 percent in natural products stores in 2002. Shade attributed some of the increase to more SKUs throughout the industry. Seventh Generation has introduced four new spray cleaners within the last two years.
"The availability of natural products is growing, so people are becoming more aware," particularly in the kitchen and bath cleaner category, Shade said, where consumers can most easily make the connection between toxic ingredients and health problems. "They think, 'Oh, when I spray Windex or Tilex my eyes water.'"
Vlahakis said Earth Friendly sales were up 44 percent in 2002, with 50 percent of its products sold in mass-merchandise stores such as Wal-Mart and Kroger. SPINS reports Earth Friendly's sales in natural products stores increased 12.1 percent in 2002.
Earth Friendly can compete with the "big gorillas," such as Procter & Gamble, because when the company was formed 10 years ago, the goal was to produce natural cleaning products that performed as well as the non-naturals, Vlahakis said. Seven chemists on staff ensure Earth Friendly products have "always had the efficacy," he said.
That's not always been the case with some other naturals manufacturers, who have concentrated more on cleaners that coddle the environment rather than pulverize baked-on grease. But as the industry matures and manufacturers of natural cleaning products become confident that their formulations are as environmentally friendly as possible, they're devoting more time and energy to producing cleaning products that actually work. That's resulted in increased sales.
"In the last five years, we're starting to see more emphasis put on the efficacy of products," Shade said.
A year ago, Seventh Generation hired a full-time director of product quality and an assistant, who have exponentially improved the performance of the company's laundry soap and dishwashing detergents, Shade said. "We set a goal for ourselves that all our products would work at least 90 percent as well as their conventional counterparts. In some categories, we've surpassed that."
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.