Clean and green (but mainly green)

Canadians want cleaning products that are convenient and full of brawn–minus the eco burden

Amelia Mackie knows household cleaning. She used to whip four homes into sparkling condition each day as a Molly Maid cleaner and now owns one of the company’s franchises in Mississauga, Ont. With more than 13 years in the business under her feather duster, Mackie has observed a monumental change in Canadians’ cleaning schedules. “People just don’t make time for beating mats outside and doing a big clean every Saturday afternoon like they used to,” she says. “Now it’s mini-bursts of 15-minute ‘power’ cleaning.”

With time-crunched Canucks taking a Tasmanian Devil approach to this chore, they’re scoping out products that offer convenience. The more surfaces a single item can tackle, the better. And while consumers traditionally turned to chemically loaded formulas to do the job, now they’re hyper-aware of the environmental impact of wiping down the sink. As Mackie notes, customers regularly ask her whether Molly Maid uses green cleaning products (they do). Up until a few years ago, that question never came up.

The convenience factor

All-channel sales of household cleaning products were up a respectable 3% in dollars in the 52 weeks ending June 5, 2010, according to Nielsen data. Some categories are doing better than others. Those that declined include floor waxes (down 9%) and rug cleaners ( down 7%). But surface cleaning systems boomed in the last year, with dollar sales up 14%. Consumers are choosing multifunctional products that can be used throughout the home, says Soula Kioussis, director of marketing at Clorox Company of Canada. “It’s not, ‘I need a different product for this surface or that room;’ it’s, ‘I can use this in my bathroom, in my kitchen, on my floor.’ ” Kioussis points to the flexibility of Pine-Sol Safe on Wood, which fills a variety of cleaning needs, plus works on–you guessed it–wood.

“Multipurpose products are getting better because the science is getting better,” says Jeffrey Harwell, a cleaning products expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma. Harwell says scientists have learned to formulate a range of chemical components that combat a wider array of soils.

Wipes are another multipurpose powerhouse. Streak-free varieties allow users to bounce from counter to faucet to mirror. “It’s lift the lid, pull one out and you’ve disinfected,” says Kioussis. Ease of use is especially important for consumers worried about salmonella, adds Dan Loney, owner of Cloverleaf Family Foods in Emo, Ont. His sales of wipes speak for themselves: they’re up 100% over last year.

But single-use cleaning wipes aren’t held in the same regard everywhere. At Drive Organics in Vancouver, a store chock full of sustainable, earth-friendly goods, they’ve never been a big hit. “People don’t use them here,” says general manager Jeff Proseilo. Instead, customers gravitate toward reusable microfibre cloths, sales of which have doubled at Drive Organics over the past couple of years. Likewise, Don Gummo, owner of Cobb’s AG Food in Sylvan Lake, Alta., also advocates the highly absorbent, resilient cloths. “When you start using them, you love ’em,” he says, adding that sales of the cloths are up 20% in his store.

The clean, green machine

It’s taken some retailers longer than others to wave the green flag. Bio-Vert, which has been manufacturing ecological cleaning products for 25 years, expanded its distribution beyond natural food stores into large chains such as Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobeys in 2007. Sales have soared in grocery and the mass channel since, says Cécile Choyau, director of marketing at Bio-Vert’s parent company, Savons Prolav. Crossover into the mainstream has also been relatively recent for another environmentally responsible cleaning products company, Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation. “Literally up until about 18 months ago most of our products in the conventional grocers’ world were seen as niche or specialty outside of the cleaning product category norm,” says John Murphy, vice-president of sales.

Certainly one stigma green cleaning companies have had to overcome is the notion that environmentally friendly products are wimps. To really get something clean, the belief goes, you need some nasty chemicals. In response, Bio-Vert ran a billboard campaign in Quebec this spring that featured a Bio-Vert bottle with muscles. “Some consumers think green doesn’t work, and the purpose was to show the cleaning power of these products,” says Choyau.

Harwell, the professor of cleaning products, knows that some consumers are still dubious about the efficacy of green cleaning products, but assures “I’ve seen products, for example multipurpose cleaners, with competitive, if not superior, results compared to traditional products.” He gives this advice to shoppers disappointed with green products they brought home in the past: “I’d encourage people to give them a second chance. The high-performance green cleaners are just reaching the market now, so they may
be surprised.”

Another issue for green cleaning products is packaging. Murphy recalls a line of mono-dose auto dishwasher tablets that Seventh Generation released last year in a square box. “We were trying to be as mindful of our footprint as we possibly could be, but the product was a miserable failure,” he admits. It turns out shoppers were so accustomed to the big plastic pouches the tabs usually come in that they didn’t recognize the product. (And, yes, Seventh Generation is repackaging and re-releasing the tabs. Good thing, since Nielsen shows dishwashing products in the 52 weeks ending June 5 were up 11% in dollar sales versus a year ago.)

It’s not only packaging, but what’s in that packaging that’s important in attracting shoppers. Last year, SC Johnson–whose home-cleaning brands include Pledge, Windex and Nature’s Source–began rolling out a program that shares product ingredients via a dedicated website (, phone line and product labels. The point is to provide a higher level of transparency with consumers. Bio-Vert has also added environmental facts to its labels to provide transparency for consumers. “We try to guide the consumer and make them aware of greenwashing and harmful ingredients they may have in products they use,” says Choyau.

Now, if only cleaning products included a note about how long it takes to use them…

5 Merchandising Tips

1. Use more standalone cardboard shipper displays, especially for new products. “They move product tenfold compared to putting it directly on the shelf,” says Don Gummo of Cobb’s AG Foods. Gummo recently put  a shipper display out with Method laundry detergent. It held about four dozen units and almost sold out in two weeks.

2. Spring and fall cleaning is still important for consumers. So create merchandising events around these biannual domestic blitzes through displays and cross-merchandising. It’s top of mind for consumers at that time anyway. They just need to be reminded to pick up the products.

3. Chat up customers in the aisle. For instance, Gummo notices many shoppers intently reading directions on laundry detergent. That’s an opportunity for well-trained staff to ask what the shopper is looking for or to point out what’s new in cleaning items. “It ends up being a conversation about the whole aisle.”

4. Make shelves easier to shop by brand blocking within segments, suggests Clorox’s Soula Kioussis. She recommends displaying products vertically by segment, then blocking brands horizontally within the section. So once shoppers gets to a particular four-foot section, they can scan all the comparable products easily.

5. Use freebies to convince customers that green products are as tough as chemical-heavy counterparts. Drive Organics in Vancouver does a huge Earth Day feature every April that includes samples and giveaways. It drives up sales three to four times, says general manager Jeff Proseilo. “It’s a good chance for customers on the fence about environmentally conscious cleaning products to try them.”

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