Soap and detergent makers go small in their drive for green products

Small and mighty

21 January 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Manufacturers are listening to consumers' demands for greener soaps and detergents, heralding a new era of highly concentrated products that save on packaging and weight

Sean Milmo/London

GLOBAL SOAP and detergent makers are going green. New launches are boosting sales, and much of that is coming from eco-friendly products.

The laundry and cleaning sector has been particularly vulnerable to a strong and sudden rise in environmental awareness among consumers, not only in the developed world but also in the emerging regions of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Players in the market, particularly the multinationals, with large shares of sales in many areas of the world, have little alternative but to respond with powerful ecological initiatives of their own.

The sector has been more active than most downstream segments in carrying out detailed life cycle analyses of their products, from the making of the raw materials through to their disposal. The aim has been to cut energy and water consumption, and to reduce pollutants through the entire process.

However, the key objective in product development has been to find new methods for helping consumers and customers to be more environmentally friendly in the way they do their washing and cleaning.

New products are being introduced that help in particular the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions during the application of detergents and cleaners.

"Companies have been monitoring carefully where in the product life cycle they can make the biggest impact in helping the environment," says Valerie Sejourne, head of communications at the International Association of Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), in Brussels, Belgium. "It is clear that the most important phase in the cycle is the point of use by the consumer. That is where, overall, the most energy is being consumed and where around 80% of CO2 emissions are occurring. A huge difference can be made by large numbers of consumers switching from 60˚C [140˚F] to 40˚C washes."


The big soapers have been in the forefront of moves to introduce greener products, not only in North America, Europe and Japan, but also in developing countries, where there is an urgency to conserve water.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have also been active in developing more environmentally compliant products. This is particularly the case in the industrial and institutional or janitorial/sanitary sectors where small players are pitching for cleaning contracts by offering the use of a complete range of green detergents and cleaners.

SMEs are also building up niches in the consumer markets where they are able to meet the specific needs of environmentally conscious groups.

Also, the proliferation of green certification programs is helping small companies gain a higher profile in the market.

"Trusted green labeling is needed to expose the truth behind green claims on household products and make it clear what going green really means," says David Macauley, executive chairman of Aquados, a UK start-up whose powder detergent with a measured dosage system was the first laundry brand in the country to be awarded the EU's stringent Eco-label.

In the private label sector, Sainsbury's, one of the UK's biggest supermarket chains, has introduced a new range of fully biodegradable cleaning products, which has gained more impetus in the market because it has also been given both the EU Eco-label and the Swedish Good Environmental Choice label.

AISE has created its own certification labeling system in the form of a charter for sustainable cleaning, to which so far 57 of its 900 member companies have committed themselves. Since most of the backers are multinationals, it is already supported by producers of around 75% of detergent and cleaning products in Europe by volume.

The objective of the program is to reduce the consumption of chemicals, packaging and energy during the production and transportation of detergents and cleaners, but in particular during their use.

Germany's Henkel - which has a strategy of sustainable development, is backed by use of renewable materials and was the first company to sign up to the charter - has introduced Somat 7in Europe, an energy-efficient automatic dishwashing detergent. With the aid of a low temperature activator, it cleans dishes at 40˚C. Its enzymes remove stubborn stains such as egg and sauce. Somat 7's consumption of energy is up to 20% less than comparable detergents at 50-55˚C.

Like its other two global competitors - Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Unilever - Henkel has aimed to achieve big reductions in energy, chemical, water and material consumption through the introduction of concentrated detergents. Among its latest launches has been Purex Natural Elements, through its US subsidiary, Dial. The Purex 2X concentrate is made from 100% natural materials, including natural fragrance extracts, while being free from phosphates and dyes and being packaged in recyclable materials.

Henkel, which has a share of 10% of the global market for laundry detergents, according to estimates from market research firm Euromonitor, believes that its well-embedded reputation for sustainability gives it a distinct identity among the multinationals. This provides a firm platform from which to compete against P&G, the global leader, with 31%, and Unilever, with 19%. From 2001-2006, Henkel's global share has gone up by more than one-third, although this rise partly stemmed from acquisitions. P&G's share has increased by around 10% and Unilever's has fallen by one percentage point, according to Euromonitor.

Beginning last September, P&G has been converting its entire North American portfolio of liquid laundry detergents to 2X concentrated formulations, with the aim of completing the switch by April.

The company claims that in addition to saving fuel and warehouse space, the transfer to 50% compacted versions of brands like Dreft, Cheer, Era, Gain and Tide will achieve decreases in packaging of up to 43%. The new formulations also consume 44% less water.

Unilever, which is pulling out of the washing products market in North America, where it has a 13% share against P&G's 57%, has been rolling out across Europe Small & Mighty, under its Persil and Surf brands. The range is three times more concentrated than regular detergents. One bottle can clean 32 loads of laundry - equivalent to 614 T-shirts, 1,354 socks and 211 pairs of trousers.

Water usage is cut by 60% by Small & Mighty, and for transport it enables a 60% reduction in the use of pallets and cases.

In the UK, where the range was first launched in 2007, it already has a market share in excess of 3%. At least one product with the formulation has been purchased by 13% of the population, or by 3m households.


Hindustan India, Unilever's Indian subsidiary, has been focusing on new product developments that meet the need for more efficient use of scarce water in the country. In the dry southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andira Pradesh, washing clothes accounts for almost one-quarter of water consumption. People spend more on water for washing than on the detergents themselves.

A new formulation of Hindustan India's Surf Excel detergent for washing by hand, which was launched first in the two southern states, saves people two buckets of water per day by doing fewer rinses, while obtaining the same level of stain removal.

"Typically people keep rinsing till all the lather has gone, which often takes four rinses or four buckets of water," says a Unilever official. "We knew we could cut the number of rinses by adding one of a number of anti-foam ingredients commonly used in washing-machine detergents. This would make the lather rinse more quickly."

With demand in the mature markets stagnating, multinational firms need to build up their presence in developing countries. In Asia-Pacific and Latin America, annual growth in detergent sales from 2001-2006 was more than 5%, five times higher than in North America, according to Euromonitor. Even in poorer countries, green versions can increase share. The new Surf Excel has increased its Indian sales by 50%.

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