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Green is cleaning up

You know the eco-revolution has turned a corner when lemons start challenging Lysol.

In the cleaning aisle at the neighborhood grocery, small companies that for years have marketed environmentally friendly dish detergents and floor cleaners are being joined by the industry giants. Even Procter & Gamble and Unilever are selling sustainability in smaller bottles that use less plastic.

This month, retailing giant Home Depot rolled out Eco Options, a designation for 2,500 products in its stores — including cleaning supplies such as biodegradable glass cleaners and water-saving washing machines — to help consumers identify eco-sensitive choices.

Cleaning products are among the fastest-growing green categories, according to Ron Jarvis, Home Depot's vice president of environmental innovation. "They used to be twice the cost and half the benefits," he says. "Consumers will buy green if it does everything a standard product does and has less impact on the environment."

Mia Gallina, owner of the Green Mop housekeeping service (www.thegreenmop.com) in Arlington, Va., has seen her young company thrive by relying on purely green cleaning agents — mostly the lemons, baking soda and vinegar her Philippine mother used.

"I started as a green company in 2003 and never deviated," says Gallina, 36, who came to America to attend graduate school.

Today she has 18 employees and more than 100 customers.

"My customers at first are skeptical that their houses can be really clean without using lots of chemicals, but then they see results. Lots of my clients have kids or pets or allergies or compromised immune systems. Plus they care about the environment." Minneapolis entrepreneur Monica Nassif started Caldrea, an upscale line of green cleaning products, in 2000. She shunned harsh chemicals and added fragrances taken from nature as her alternative to mass-market brands. Her dish soaps and furniture cream sold well in specialty stores, and soon she added private-label cleaning collections in yuzu jasmine and spiced chestnut for Williams-Sonoma. In 2001 her company created the more moderately priced Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day line, which is now carried by nearly 4,000 grocery and hardware stores.

Nassif says that although there were some earlier pioneers in green cleaning, the idea started taking hold in the 1970s, when natural cleaning products were turning up at neighborhood health-food co-ops. She sees the 1982 opening of natural foods supermarket Whole Foods in Austin as a major breakthrough. "Eventually, companies wanted to work on both performance and green properties, and that's when the consumer really embraced the concept," Nassif says.

Seventh Generation, which calls itself the nation's largest manufacturer of eco-friendly home and personal care products, launched in 1988. According to spokeswoman Chrystie Heimert, the Vermont-based company has experienced 40 percent growth annually over the past six years, with sales approaching $100 million. Its products have been on shelves in conventional supermarkets for about five years, showing the mainstreaming of what was once a fringe market.

The new cachet of green is prompting a certain amount of "green-washing": attractive earthy labels, eco-cheery names, naturally inspired (yet chemical-smelling) fragrances and precious few facts to back up claims that the product will slow global warming.

"Green is really a marketing term," says Brian Sansoni, vice president of the Soap and Detergent Association, which represents the $15 billion American household cleaning products industry, including some manufacturers whose products are plant-derived and free of petroleum derivatives.

"The ecological nature of a product really involves the entire product: its packaging, manufacturing process and recycled content."

According to Sansoni, no federal standards govern the use of the term "natural" in relation to cleaning products. There are green guidelines dating to the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission issued general principles that marketers should not make misleading claims or overstate environmental benefits. Right now, Sansoni says, full ingredient listings on cleaning products are not required by law.

Many companies are looking for ways to educate consumers and help them evaluate green claims. Home Depot has created a labeling system for its Eco Options initiative identifying five performance areas: sustainable forestry, energy efficiency, clean water, clean air, healthy home.

Corporate Web sites are sources of information about the greening of cleaning products. Procter & Gamble, makers of Tide — the nation's top-selling laundry detergent — is adding smaller and lighter bottles that use less plastic and making cold-water formulas that conserve energy. All Small & Mighty, a concentrated liquid laundry detergent made by Unilever, requires only half the amount of plastic and corrugated cardboard to produce than the company's regular All liquid.

Consumers looking to go green should read labels, according to Linda Mason Hunter, co-author of the 2005 book "Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home" (with Mikki Halpin, Melcher Media, $17.95).

The author's Web site, www.hunterink.com, lists these words and phrases:

  • Biodegradable in three to five days
  • Plant-based
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Nonflammable
  • Contains no phosphates
  • Contains no chlorine
  • Contains no petroleum products
  • Contains no ammonia, acids, alkalis, solvents, nitrates or borates
  • Formulated without dye or synthetic fragrance
  • — Washington Post