SC Johnson is the latest to up the ante, recently announcing that it will disclose ingredient information over and above federal guidelines -- not just for its new Nature's Source Cleaners, but for brands like Windex and Glade, as well.
Nature's Source, like Clorox's Green Works and Church & Dwight's Arm & Hammer's Essential Cleaners, is pitched not at the environmental elite but the grime-fighting masses. Saving the planet is nice, but these people are also looking to save a few cents and make sure they know what the heck they are squirting into their own kitchens.
Marketing experts say the surge of interest in green cleaners is just the latest evidence of consumers wanting to be more in control. "Consumers want to do-it-yourself, make-it-yourself, grow-it-yourself and clean-it-yourself these days," says Robin Avni, senior director and consumer strategist for Iconoculture, a Minneapolis-based trend research firm.
These greener, more basic cleaning products are part of the same passions that are fueling sales of packets of vegetable seeds, home generators, deep freezers, and canning supplies. "People are saying, 'I don't have control of what's out there - but I do have control over my home.' The banking system has failed us, the stock market has failed us, even the electrical grid is starting to fail us. It's a way people have of saying, 'I don't trust the system.'"
In short, we want greater self-reliance, which means getting our hands dirty now and then. We want to clean more, for example: A survey from the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) says that 60% of Americans say they're doing more cleaning themselves instead of hiring a cleaning service.
Another study finds that Americans are playing butcher at home, with the Food Marketing Institute reporting that more than half of shoppers have changed the way they shop for meat during the past year, using strategies such as stocking up on meat during promotions and sales, then divvying it up and freezing it for later use.
While it's easy to say the economy is driving all these changes -- 44% of those in the SDA survey say they are also buying less expensive cleaning products, for example - the fact that 22% are making their own cleaning products at home indicates there's more at play.
"People are definitely taking the opportunity of the recession to step back and re-evaluate, and they're enjoying this idea of getting back to basics," says Mara Engel, co-founder of Organic Works Marketing, based in New York, which has worked with such brands as Arm & Hammer and Whole Foods Markets.
Just as many sectors of the economy have shifted from the indulgent to the practical, so has green marketing. "It used to be seen as an elitist thing, and the assumption was that environmentally friendly or socially responsible products always cost more," she says.
But as greener policies have gone mainstream, from Wal-Mart Stores to the White House, which recently said it would plant an organic vegetable garden, marketers are using pitches that are more practical than altruistic. SCJohnson's product line, introduced earlier this year, is "Powerful. Natural. Affordable," while Arm & Hammer's tagline is "Save More. Waste Less."
It seems to be working. Even in a down economy, consumers are integrating green values into their lives: In the SDA study, for instance, 61% of consumers say they're looking for cleaning products that are less harmful to the environment, up from 38% in the same survey a year ago.
Doubtless, some are making these back-to-basics changes because they can't afford to do anything else. But Avni sees it as an emerging status symbol, as well. "There's this real sense of accomplishment, almost like a merit badge," she says. "Doing more shows we've acquired more expertise and self-reliance."