What Women Really Want in Green Products

What Women Really Want in Green Products

For those who read the recent New York Times article about the fall in sales of green products, and in particular, green cleaners offered by companies such as Clorox and Arm & Hammer, I offer a silver lining.

Eco-capitalist Tom Szaky aptly speculated that the reason for Clorox's fall, while independent green brands such as Seventh Generation and Method remained unaffected, was because Clorox appealed to "light green" consumers who don't prioritize the environmental benefits of their cleaner. Meanwhile Seventh Generation and the like appeal to the "dark green" consumers who remain steadfast in their sustainability commitments.

Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group, also responded to the NYT piece as well as a more recent article by GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower, who declared green marketing dead. While Shelton acknowledged that marketing products with an "it'll save the planet" message is dead, she added: "Very few Americans have ever bought stuff because they want to save the planet. As I've hammered home in this blog countless times, people buy green products for a host of other reasons -- to feel more comfortable, to gain peace of mind, to limit the chemicals their families are exposed to ..."

It's important to make the distinction between environment and health as consumer motivators. People may not buy a product because of the amount of plastic or kilowatts of energy saved, but they are willing to buy a product they know will protect their health. Contrary to the belief that "green marketing is over," I see an opportunity for companies to capture a larger slice of the dark green consumer market, grow the green leanings of the average consumer and empower the customer to make wise decisions, which would help the sector across the board. That opportunity is women's health.

Women make 95 percent of the household purchasing decisions in U.S., and are more likely to be green homeowners. Women have a longer list of satisfaction criteria -- that is, if you're able to satisfy a woman with your product, you're almost guaranteed to satisfy a man. Women also still do over 70 percent of the household work, despite women's lib. And, 89 percent of professional cleaners in this country are women.

Women are also uniquely influenced by chemicals in cleaners. Chemicals like phthalates are contained in certain conventional cleaners, and have been linked to higher rates of breast cancer, infertility, endometriosis and hormone disruption -- afflictions that disproportionately affect women. Additionally, women are the first environment for the next generation. Many chemicals stored in a woman's body are passed onto her child during pregnancy and later through breast-feeding.

This makes women especially vigilant about toxic chemicals in her environment and potential health hazards -- and they are taking action.

In 2007, Women's Voices for the Earth released a report, "Household Hazards," citing the numerous chemicals that are contained in cleaning products -- everything from drain cleaner to air fresheners. The public uproar and media pressure around this report and subsequent ones have spurred thousands of women to make their own nontoxic cleaners, and numerous corporations to change their ways. SC Johnson has started their "What's Inside SC Johnson" bilingual website, listing all chemical ingredients (except fragrances). Clorox has removed phthalates and synthetic musks, which can impair the body's defense system against other chemicals, from their products. All are great efforts to make cleaning products safer and more mainstream, yet none have prevented their sales from falling.

The one piece missing is the information that women and consumers need to make comparisons between products to make informed decisions. Right now, no cleaning products are required to list all ingredients on the label. Imagine if you wanted to buy a box of cereal and couldn't make a comparison between Lucky Charms and Fiber One. Instead, you'd have to navigate a website that listed all possible ingredients, cross-reference alternate names for the same ingredient, download safety data sheets for each product and navigate scientific studies on the safety of suspect ingredients. That's currently the case with household cleaners.

Shelton says, as Makower noted in his article, that "the number-one way people determine a product is green is that they read the package." And with no consistent labeling guidelines, it's absolutely true that consumers are as conflicted and misinformed as ever.

No wonder women are choosing cleaners that their families used rather than trying new brands that may be safer, just as effective and just as affordable. For a truly free marketplace, customers need a way to truly know if one product has value over another. Here, confusion is the enemy of innovation. Products and practices that emphasize safety and transparency have the potential to move consumer behavior and the marketplace into uncharted territory that is both profitable and better for our health.

We know that safe and healthy are words that consumers live by. A March survey conducted by Deloitte found that consumers identify safety as their number one concern for household products such as cleaners and detergents (56 percent) and personal care products such as cosmetics (57 percent).

What we need are common sense, consistent policies that require all cleaning products to label their products to give consumers the information they need to make simple, in-the-aisle choices, just as they do with shampoo and cereal. And we need a progressive federal policy to encourage discovery, testing and marketing of safer alternatives to chemicals that are currently shown in independent study to be associated with long-term health impacts.

"Consumers want checks and balances in the information they receive and are insisting on a greater level of transparency about the safety, ingredients and origin of products.  So, they're turning to advocacy groups and peers as trusted sources," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and U.S. consumer products practice leader, in their press release. "This is a wake-up call for consumer products companies; they need to get ahead of this shift and work more directly with consumers to build brand advocates and stronger customer relationships."

In order for advocacy groups such as this one to come on board as true "brand advocates," we will need to have faith in smart policies that provide a level playing field for all companies, while also protecting the long-term health of women, workers and children.

Images by sxc.hu users duchesssa and biewoef.