Top Cleaning Products Waste Water. Will Concentrated Versions Help?

Top Cleaning Products Waste Water. Will Concentrated Versions Help?

Companies are selling everything from tile cleaner to toothpaste tablets in concentrated form, touting the benefits of reduced packaging and water use.

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(Bloomberg) — In 2018, Seventh Generation unveiled what it called a “game changer” in the otherwise pedestrian laundry category. The new product, two years in the making, would allow consumers to swap their giant jugs of detergent for a highly concentrated version sold in bottles roughly the size of a Coke. EasyDose detergent, Seventh Generation vowed, would slash the plastic and water excess typically associated with putting clothes in the wash.

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“I was biting my fingernails when we first launched it,” says John Moorhead, Seventh Generation’s chief marketing officer.

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That may seem like a lot of fanfare for laundry detergent, but Seventh Generation was taking a risk. EasyDose is both cheaper per load and easier to transport than its big-jug competition — an advantage that also reduces shipping costs and, crucially, emissions. But the 23-ounce bottle looked like a major downsizing against most of the competition, including Seventh Generation’s own 100-ounce bottle. 

Fast forward five years, and Seventh Generation says its concentrates — led by EasyDose — are driving the bulk of online sales, the company’s fastest-growing channel. In November, the Unilever Plc-owned brand pledged to shift all of its laundry jugs to concentrated formulas by 2030, estimating that the industry could cut 2 billion pounds of excess water and packaging weight per year by following suit.

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Seventh Generation isn’t alone. Startups and consumer-goods giants selling everything from tile cleaners to disinfectant to toothpaste tablets are launching concentrates that they hope will finally gain mass appeal, and touting them as both easier on consumers and better for the planet. The number of household-care products purporting to be concentrated hit 1,338 last year, according to research firm NIQ, up about 13% from 2019. Unit sales rose almost 6% in the same time period. 

Concentrates aren’t new — Procter & Gamble Co. introduced a concentrated shampoo in 1947 and SC Johnson launched Windex pouches more than a decade ago — but this time companies seem to have learned a lesson that doomed previous attempts. Most shoppers say they want green alternatives, but it’s hard to make those products stick unless they are also cheaper, more convenient to use or, ideally, both. That’s a pivotal insight in the quest to cut emissions and plastic waste at a time when many companies appear poised to miss their own climate goals.

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“Our consumer has a lot going on,” says Curan Mehra, founder of Gelo, a refillable hand-soap company. “She doesn’t have ‘stop global warming’ on her grocery list. She has ‘buy hand soap.’”

The environmental benefit of concentrated formulas is that they use less water, which means less packaging and less weight being shipped, says Eric Beckman, co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and a professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s “usually a uniformly good thing,” he says. “What you’re buying is mostly water — 60%, 70%, 80% water.” Often that water has been purified, which also uses energy.

But there are still hurdles to overcome. Some concentrated formulas need to be diluted with tap water in special bottles, which puts the onus on consumers to get the mix right. Getting it wrong can ruin the efficacy, says Sherry Frey, who leads the health and wellness practice at NIQ. It can also negate the environmental benefits. 

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Moreover, some shoppers don’t even realize the product they’re buying is concentrated. These folks end up using more than what they need, running out too quickly and switching back to what they see as traditional options offering better value, says Nihal Advani, chief executive officer of consumer-behavior research firm QualSights.  

Seventh Generation solved for that challenge with its EasyDose cap, which the company says dispenses exactly one load’s worth of detergent on each of 66 squeezes — no diluting necessary. Moorhead says the cap also helped shoppers understand that the smaller bottle wasn’t an example of “shrinkflation,” or charging the same or more for less product. “That was the big value creator,” he says. “Without the dosing, you sort of lose the benefit of concentration.”

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There’s another lingering issue for many concentrated formulas: They aren’t always cheaper than their traditional counterparts, in part because making products smaller doesn’t necessarily slash manufacturing costs. Companies like Seventh Generation — whose cleaners feature plant-based ingredients and recycled-plastic packaging — are also already charging more than value-oriented brands like Arm & Hammer.

Moorhead says EasyDose launched online in part to skirt the comparison with “a ginormous jug that costs the same amount.” The story is similar for Univar Solutions, which sells ingredients for home-care products and through its technical support team helped brands create dozens of concentrates last year. Brandon Beyer, who runs the group that advises on formulations, says many were e-commerce companies.

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“It’s really easy to have an Amazon model where you’re sending out cartridges and a reusable bottle,” Beyer says. “The target demographic tends to be millennials and Gen Z, and they’re a little quicker to adopt this idea.”

The drawback is that most people still buy personal-care and household products in person, and shoppers often discover them by wandering the aisles. That’s why EasyDose launched in brick-and-mortar stores in 2020, two years after sales kicked off online, and Gelo’s hand soap can be found at shops such as Rite Aid. Grove Collaborative, which also sells concentrates, started selling online before entering Target in 2021. It doubled its retail footprint to 4,000 stores in the US last year.

As Seventh Generation looks to shrink the rest of its laundry lineup, the company faces one more outstanding challenge with EasyDose: Because it requires a spring to function, the cap isn’t recyclable. That’s not a concern for the company’s liquid laundry pods, which Chief Executive Officer Alison Whritenour has said will get a revamp next year. Biodegradable laundry sheets might also be in the cards. 

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While Seventh Generation may be going all in, a widespread shift to concentrates will only come if larger companies take up the cause — both those making products and those selling them. Despite the category’s growth, concentrated offerings accounted for just 5% of home-care products’ unit sales last year, according to NIQ. 

Moorhead says liquid laundry detergent is a good place to start. It’s still the dominant product in the category, tends to be cheaper per load than laundry pods, and takes up a lot of space in stores that could be used more efficiently. “It is really on retailers for the first time as much as it is on manufacturers,” he says.

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