Could the days of market domination be over for green giant Ecover?

Major manufacturers are gearing up for an onslaught on the environmentally-friendly detergent market, once a niche sector dominated by Ecover.

Reckitt Benckiser (RB) is poised to launch an eco-friendly laundry detergent (MW last week), the latest assault on the burgeoning “green” detergent sector.

In a U-turn by RB’s chief executive, Bart Becht – who last year referred to ecological detergents as a “fad” – the household cleaning giant is to back the top-secret product, thought to be called VO, with a huge marketing campaign to compete with a raft of new products in the sector.

Unilever has introduced the double-strength Persil Small and Mighty, and Procter & Gamble (P&G) is to add concentrated extensions to its brands. Supermarkets too are about to add own-label green versions.

Only four years after axing its Down to Earth range of household products following poor sales, RB has been forced to react to the spiralling demand for products that have a less harmful impact on the environment. As consumers learn about the benefits of less packaging, reduction in water consumption and lower wash temperatures, companies have been quick to respond with innovative offerings.

Julia Haines, green campaigner and author of The Green Consumer Guide, says that the green detergent market, to date, has focused on the chemical content of laundry detergents, but that this is no longer as relevant because EU legislation means that all detergents must meet high standards of biodegradability.

Haines says that while the latest detergents marketed by the major players such as P&G and Unilever might be seen by some as less eco-friendly than niche products, in fact, they are kinder to the environment.

Wash temperature
She says: “Rather than the not-very-significant issue of biodegradability, you have the very significant energy issue. Ariel, simply by changing their packaging to encourage people to change to a 30 degree wash, did a fantastic thing. Lowering wash temperature alone will have more impact on the enviroment than anything else.” 

With public perceptions shifting at a fast pace, there seems to be less room for separate green brands, such as Ecover, Method and Aquados. Smaller companies could be overwhelmed by the sheer force of the marketing spend of the heavyweights.

Undoubtedly, consumers have confidence in the major brands and feel that they will not have to compromise on the quality of their wash. True or not, the idea that if a product is green then it will be less efficient has always dogged the niche producers.

Andrew Glen, UK sales and marketing director for Aquados says: “The key thing for us is about consumer education, for those people who are concerned about compromise. Of course, consumers have trust in the big brand names, but we take the position that we are offering them a choice.” 

Aquados is the only UK laundry detergent to have been awarded the Euro Ecolabel which tests for efficiency as well as the impact on the environment. Adrian Atterby of Euromonitor doubts whether this will help them much, pointing out that there is no single standard for ethical labelling, so shoppers have to work out the different criteria for each.

The sucessful introduction of Persil Small and Mighty proves that mainstream producers can satisfy the need the public has to feel they are doing their bit for the environment.

Emphasise heritage
Atterby concludes: “It can’t be good news for companies such as Ecover. One thing they can do is emphasise their heritage. It is along-standing green company with a good factory. But is there a large enough group of consumers who are interested?” 

Over the past three years, Ecover has steadily gained popularity, but as the multi-nationals catch the zeitgeist, it remains to be seen whether specialist producers can hold onto their market share. 

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