Why ‘green’ no longer washes with shoppers

Is the demise of Reckitt’s Down to Earth household cleaning brand a sign that consumers no longer care about the environment? asks Daniel Thomas

A decade ago it was rare to open a newspaper without a bombardment of shock stories about the disastrous impact of chemical-heavy detergents on the environment.

These stories raised consumers’ concerns for the environment and triggered a “green” boom that paved the way for a raft of eco-friendly household goods. Pioneering Eighties’ eco-friendly range Ecover was joined by eco-charity brand Ark and Germany’s Frosch as well as own-label environmentally-friendly brands from Sainsbury’s and Safeway.

But the green pound appears to have lost its currency and the number of brands on the market has dwindled. And now Reckitt Benckiser (RB) has axed its Down to Earth range of household products, leaving Ecover as the sole survivor in the eco-friendly detergents market (MW last week).

Ecover has a less than one per cent share of the detergents market, which is dominated by Procter & Gamble’s Ariel and Unilever’s Persil. Ariel accounted for 20.3 per cent of the market and Persil 28.8 per cent in the 12 months to May 2003, according to Information Resources.

RB is not the first mainstream manufacturer to decide to do away with its green credentials. Unilever has discontinued its Lever Fabergé Persil Naturgel variant – a product that was lauded for its environmental benefits. A Lever Fabergé spokeswoman says: “Our research showed that people didn’t understand what Naturgel meant.”

Lever Fabergé has also ditched its cardboard refills of Persil liquid detergent for less eco-friendly bulky plastic containers (MW May 8).

David Macauley, chief executive of detergents maker Aquados, says that consumers quickly lost interest in the green detergent phenomenon. “Like flared trousers, it was a fad and brands that launched on its back were destined to fail.”

He adds that consumers prioritise quality and price, and that environmental advantages are almost a handicap as most mass-market brands are marketed on efficacy. “Consumers want a good wash at a good price. There is a perception that ‘good for the environment’ will not be good for laundry.”

The fall-off in consumer interest means there is only room for a single brand in the eco-friendly market – Ecover, according to retail buyers. As one retail expert says: “Every manufacturer made the right eco-noises, but it turned out that most consumers don’t care. Environmentalists will always buy Ecover, which is a more campaigning brand than Down to Earth.”

Rachel’s Organic Dairy marketing director Neil Burchell says that poor performance has hindered the eco-friendly laundry brands and believes that the organic food market faces the same threat: “Being green isn’t enough to persuade consumers to buy you. You have to offer quality and performance as well.”

Burchell points to research done by his own company that shows only two per cent of consumers are “dark green” – those who will buy eco-friendly products regardless of quality, while 40 per cent are “light green” – they will only buy if the product performs well.

Burchell says that ensuring organic food is of the highest quality is a priority for his own industry. Already, the sector’s meteoric initial growth has dwindled to just seven per cent in the year to July 2003, down from ten per cent the previous year, according to TNS Superpanel.

Robin Binds, who launched Ecover in 1983, agrees that most eco-friendly laundry brands failed to perform adequately. He says: “Either they didn’t clean well or they weren’t really environmentally friendly. Consumers became quite cynical about the claims products made.”

Binds points to recycled toilet tissue as an example of the importance of quality. He says: “Recycled toilet paper was very uncomfortable at first. Only when brands like Nouvelle moved into the market with paper that was as good as normal did it take off.”

Lever Fabergé corporate and consumer affairs director John Ballington claims that niche eco-friendly brands have been forced out by mass-market brands, which have become more responsible.

Ballington claims: “Mainstream brands are much cleaner now, which means there is no longer a defined niche for specifically eco-friendly products. It has taken away the differentiation.”

He adds that consumers have passed responsibility for the environment to the manufacturer, trusting that brands will be compliant with stricter European laws.

UK Cleaning Products Industry Association director general Dr Andrew Williams says that over the past decade much European legislation has been introduced as well as a number of self-regulatory steps, notably the industry-wide Code of Good Environmental Practice and the “Washright” campaign encouraging sensible laundry habits. “There is no longer a need for a niche as consumers know that all products meet environmental standards,” he says.

Richard Hyman, chairman of retail consultancy Verdict Research, says that household goods is not the only green area to experience a shift from the niche to the mainstream. The same can be said of the cosmetics and personal care markets after large retailers such as Boots and Asda created products similar to those of green retailer The Body Shop.

The mainstream moving into niche areas is evident as a trend in the organic market. Larger players, such as Heinz and Mars, are looking for ways to capitalise on the demand for organic produce in the same way that Persil and Ariel made their standard products more environmentally friendly to take over the green sector. The future of the Earth might, ironically, lie in the hands of big business after all.

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