Green cleaning losing its shine with consumers

When Clorox introduced Green Works, its environment-friendly cleaning line, in 2008, it secured an endorsement from the Sierra Club, a nationwide introduction at Walmart, and it vowed that it would move “natural cleaning into the mainstream,” according to a story in the New York Times.

Sales that year topped $100 million, and several other major consumer products companies came out with their own “green” cleaning supplies.

But America’s eco-consciousness, it turns out, is fickle. As recession gripped the country, the consumer’s love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars, faded like a bad infatuation. While farmers’ markets and Prius sales are humming along now, household product makers like Clorox just can’t seem to persuade mainstream customers to buy green again.

Sales of Green Works have fallen to about $60 million a year, and those of other similar products from major brands like Arm & Hammer, Windex, Palmolive, Hefty and Scrubbing Bubbles are sputtering.

“Every consumer says, ‘I want to help the environment, I’m looking for eco-friendly products,’ ” said David Donnan, a partner in the consumer products practice at the consulting firm A. T. Kearney. “But if it’s one or two pennies higher in price, they’re not going to buy it. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they do.”

For instance, a 32-oz bottle of Clorox Green Works All-Purpose cleaner is $3.29 at Stop & Shop. A 32-ounce bottle of Fantastik cleaner, by contrast, costs $2.89.

Indeed, outside a Whole Foords Market in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, June Shellene, 60, said she did not buy green products as often as she did a few years ago.

“People are so freaked out by what is happening in the world,” she said, before loading her groceries into a Toyota Prius. Of green products, she said, “That’s something you buy and think about when things are going swimmingly.”

Sales in most consumer-products categories dropped off during the recession. But according to an analysis by Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, certain green products have fared worse.

“You see disproportionately negative impact from products like Green Works, out of the big blue-chip companies that have tried to layer a green offering on top of their conventional offering, and a relatively better performance from the niche players who remain independent,” said Stephen Powers, an analyst at Bernstein.

Using data from the Nielsen company, Bernstein looked at sales for nearly 4,300 items in 22 categories, like cleaning spray, liquid soap, bathroom cleaners and detergents. It studied monthly sales from March 2006 to March 2011, the most recent data available. (Nielsen’s data includes mass market, grocery stores and drugstores but excludes Walmart.)

Bernstein found that the market shares of green products generally were down from their peak — especially those offered by the big consumer-products companies. But the market share of the independent brands, like Method and Seventh Generation, is starting to increase relative to the shares of traditional brands’ green products in categories where they compete.

“In terms of the big players like Clorox, there’s no doubt that they’ve de-emphasized the brands relative to their early aspirations, and that’s reflective of what they are seeing from the consumer,” Mr. Powers said.

Green products are more expensive because the ingredients tend to cost more than their more conventional counterparts, and transportation costs are higher too because they are sold in smaller volumes than the big brands.

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