Cleaning your home sure generates a lot of trash. In the United States, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are tossed into the waste bin each year and 91 percent of plastic bottles are never recycled, rather heading to landfills and ultimately our oceans. But as Americans have become increasingly climate-conscious in recent years, they’ve looked to green up their act by turning to cleaning products that are better for the environment. And consumers were making steady headway in this space: According to Harvard Business Review, between 2013 and 2018, “products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.”
Then—boom—COVID-19 arrived and progress stalled as consumers cleared shelves of Clorox and other tried-and-true disinfectants to carry out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations to wipe down commonly touched surfaces every day. A report by the market research firm Kline found that 32 percent of consumers switched from environmentally friendly cleaning products to “stronger, chemical-based products” during the pandemic. But as the initial wave of panic subsides and scientists learn more about how the virus spreads, brands large and small note a resurgence in demand for more sustainable choices. The Kline survey also found that fully 50 percent of consumers name sustainability as a determining factor when choosing a cleaning product to buy.$110b
By 2025, the sustainable cleaning market will surge to reach a $110 billion valuation and, once again, growth of sustainable products is outpacing the overall market by a factor of two, according to a report by market insights firm Smithers. In other words, customers want greener cleaning products (and they don’t want greenwashing). “If you're going to be a competitive brand in this market, you have to align with the values of customers: sustainability and health,” says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of direct-to-consumer brand Branch Basics, a natural cleaning supply company which saw revenue grow by 150 percent from 2019 to 2020.
To Luana Bumachar, vice president of innovation at Grove Collaborative, a sustainable home cleaning brand and platform that launched a line of plastic-free cleaning products in Target this spring, the steady gravitation towards sustainable “home care” products is part of a natural progression for wellness-minded consumers. “The movement towards sustainability starts with produce, because it’s what you ingest. And then it goes into personal care because [that’s] what you're putting on your skin,” she says. “And now we’ve arrived at home because your home is what surrounds everything else.”
One of the biggest contributors to a home care product’s carbon footprint is its packaging. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a typical bottle of household cleaner is 90 percent water and less than 10 percent valuable ingredients. When shipped, bottled liquids are heavier and take up more space than concentrates or powders, which in turn means more fuel is needed to get a product from the factory to your front door. And, as mentioned earlier, less than a fifth of the 161 million tons of plastic packaging created globally each year is recycled. (Note that only a portion of this comes specifically from household cleaning products.) In order to reduce this waste, 60 to 70 percent of respondents to an October 2020 survey from consulting firm McKinsey said they’re willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. Furthermore, a July 2021 Mintel survey found that 48 percent of respondents believe brands should take responsibility for the environmental impact of their packaging.
“The movement towards sustainability starts with produce, because it’s what you ingest. And then it goes into personal care because [that’s] what you're putting on your skin. And now we’ve arrived at home because your home is what surrounds everything else.” Luana Bumachar, vice president of innovation at Grove Collaborative
A novel solution that experts predict will continue to gain prominence in 2022: Replacing traditional all-purpose cleaning sprays, laundry detergents, dishwasher tablets, and more with refillable, concentrated cleaning products. This is a specialty of companies like Grove, Supernatural (est. 2018), and Blueland (est. 2019), to name a few. “Refills are becoming popular as consumers increasingly demand solutions that don’t lock them into a single-use plastic habit,” says Danielle Jezienicki, director of sustainability at Grove and a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor. “What I love about these innovations is that they not only reduce plastic or raw materials, but also decrease a product’s carbon footprint as the weight is significantly reduced, which lowers emissions of shipment whether to home or to a store.”
Among the more notable innovations in recent years are Blueland’s dishwasher tablets, which the brand launched in 2020 as one of the only “naked” dishwasher tablets on the market, meaning no plastic finds its way from your dishwasher to our waterways. And the company’s reusable “cloud cloth,” unveiled in June 2021, promises you’ll kiss paper towels good-bye. (Side note: Even the way you clean your bum is getting a sustainable makeover with toilet tissue made from bamboo fibers, which is a completely biodegradable and far more renewable alternative to paper, available from bidet-maker Tushy and others.) In July, Blueland, which claims to have diverted nearly 2 billion single-use plastic bottles from entering oceans and landfills since its launch, announced that next year it will be expanding into new categories and territories—starting with Canada. Meanwhile, green cleaning pioneer ECOS (est. 1967) announced it had achieved status as a “climate positive” company in April 2021, with facilities powered by 100-percent renewable energy.
Jezienicki says “exploring opportunities for a circular business model” is a core commitment for Grove in 2022. “One way we can start to dip a toe in that water is by launching our first refill stations for dish soap and laundry,” she says. “Recycling is the last possible option before landfill, and ultimately, most materials don’t get recycled more than a few times—so in an ideal system, we want to be reusing.”
Legacy brands are paying attention to consumer demands for increased sustainability and shifting their ways, too. Unilever, one of the biggest global players in home care with $57 billion in annual revenue across 400 brands, sees its commitment to reduce plastic as part of a “refill-reuse revolution.” In part, Unilever, which owns Seventh Generation––touted as the company’s eco-friendly choice among dozens of other home-care brands––amplifies awareness of its global trials for in-store refill programs. S.C. Johnson, a household cleaning products behemoth with an estimated $11 billion in annual sales, owns brands with plant-based cleaning and biodegradable products like Method and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, and recently pledged to close the plastic loop and choose responsible ingredients. But will the giants of the industry catch up to their upstart counterparts? Changing course will be slow for these cruise-ship-sized corporations. Even with a smaller brand like Grove, Jezienicki has seen firsthand that “supply chain is very complicated, especially when you’re trying to reverse engineer it.”
With ocean plastic expected to triple by 2040 without drastic action, consumer demand for sustainability is leading the charge for change. “Moments like this are very special. I do believe the consumer is further along the journey of sustainability than most companies. And that's really important,” says Bumachar. “If we get there, cleaning companies will be forced to meet us there.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Blueland, Grove