Over the last 10 years or so, the professional cleaning arena has been focused on chemical concentrates and dosing systems whilst the domestic consumer market has been obsessed with designer fragrances. Today, in both sectors, attention is increasingly focusing on ‘Eco’ chemical products under various guises and the so called benefits these types of products may bring.
In business, we understand that it is important to stand out from the crowd, to try and generate a point of difference and develop a perceived uniqueness that appeals to the customer over the competition. In good old-fashioned sales-speak, it centres on generating features around which companies can provide real user benefits.
We talk about innovation being an important driver in business, so where does the eco-label fit into this argument? Product innovation for domestic cleaning products has been one of the leading lights in the retail sector over many decades, where changes in clothing fashion, lifestyle trends and social values have shaped what we see on the supermarket shelves. By contrast, innovation in chemical products used in the professional arena has slowed over the last 30 years ironically due to legislative restrictions (to make them safer and more environmentally better) along with a lack of financial might compared to what the retail counterparts have at their disposal. This is because where retailers talk of price, in the professional arena we talk of cost.
On occasions, our pre-occupation with cost in the professional arena, not generally shared in retail-land, has prevented great ideas coming to fruition in what is generally perceived as a very conservative market. Innovation or progress has mainly centred on achieving better compliance standards, more technologically advanced dispensing equipment and more capable cleaning machines, rather than looking at the ingredients themselves within mainstream cleaning products.
This is probably why the emergence and sustained presence of the ‘Eco-chemical’ (versus the traditional chemical) has enjoyed so much positive visibility because ingredient innovation has been slow. In this final post in our series, we try to understand how different these products are to the traditional detergents most commonly used, and whether they are actually a credible alternative or not.
Eco-labelling got its start in the 1980s with government consumer product certification programs such as the Eco-Logo labelling system created by the Canadian government in 1988, the Nordic Swan system, which debuted in Northern Europe in 1989, along with Green Seal in the US - the country’s first environmental certification programme. In 1992, the European Union launched the pan-European Ecolabel using a flower as its symbol.
The EU Eco-Label is a voluntary scheme that covers a wide variety of products and services, including paper. It was established by the European Commission to encourage businesses to market products and services that are kinder to the environment. But, we should remember, a quarter of a century later, the professional cleaning chemicals industry has evolved considerably; and one could argue that it has pulled its socks up with regard to environmental responsibility. So, are these types of schemes as relevant as they once were? According to the EU Eco-Label website, there are more than 37,000 EU Eco-Label products available in the EU market.
In itself, it seems like a pretty honourable scheme that has the planet at the heart of its existence, but as we have mentioned before, it doesn’t take long before the altruistic language is diluted and a commercial pitch is being made in the strongest possible terms – it should be noted it costs money to register each product and renewal fees are applicable too.
The EU Flower qualification criteria for cleaning products have, since their inception, placed great emphasis on restricting the use of certain ingredients, including those with higher hazard classifications, irrespective of scientific risk assessments, which suggest that there is little evidence of a problem in the environment or to human health arising from the continued use of cleaning products containing some restricted ingredients.
The criteria have also tended to hinder rather than encourage the use of concentrates, which are of great benefit in making professional cleaning more sustainable. As a consequence, the label has remained controversial, and though many products currently on the market could comply with the criteria, especially in their diluted form, they have not been submitted for a label.
Quite unapologetically, proponents of EU Eco-Label declare that ‘most people in Europe want to buy environmentally friendly products’ and that (incredibly) ‘four out of five European consumers would like to buy more environmentally friendly products, provided they are properly certified by an independent organisation’. Wow – form an orderly queue everyone – we have already shown how this language is misleading at best and factually incorrect at worst.
They actively promote a series of woolly commercial benefits of joining the scheme, and it is here that eyebrows may be raised, because the language is quite far removed from the earthly image of saving our planet:
• Make your products stand out against your competitors
• Add real value to your business credentials and company image
• Help boost your sales figures and minimise your costs
• Reduce the amount of total chemicals
• Limit substances harmful to the aquatic environment
• Increase biodegradability
• Use less packaging
• Provide an efficient wash
• Provide reliable consumer information
Have we not heard all this before? Does the reputable chemical manufacturer who has not paid the registration fees or participated in the accreditation process for Eco-Label not do these things anyway? In the spirit of fair assessment, let us look at both sides of the argument. On one side, the ‘Ecolabel Evangelists’ of these types of schemes say they help manufacturers create safer professional cleaning products and help businesses make better and more informed purchasing decisions; on the other side, many manufacturers argue that they take a narrow view of product safety that ignores the broader environmental sustainability goals such as renewable-ingredient content and reduced energy consumption.
Eco-labelling allows certain chemical firms to view labels as a point of differentiation in what is an exceptionally competitive cleaning chemicals market. But the burning question is whether these chemicals are really so different from the so-called ‘conventional’ cleaning products that don’t make eco-label claims and if so, do people really care that much? You only have to walk down the aisle of any major supermarket, and it is abundantly clear that although there is a small proportion of aisle space dedicated to ‘green’ products most major cleaning products sitting on the shelves don’t carry eco-labels at all and make little mention of their environmental impact. This does not mean the manufacturers are paying scant regard to this area, it’s just an intrinsic part of the product, and not designated as a ‘special feature’.
In the professional cleaning market, there are many companies paying lip service to eco-labelling or ‘enviro-branding’ where they have decided to produce a limited eco-range within their portfolio so that they have a green option ‘to go to’ if required, but we doubt that five-year business plans are being built around these specific green brands. The reason is because these environmental features are simply being woven into existing brand values as standard. So, are long-standing, reputable professional cleaning chemical manufacturers hiding their heads in the sand? The answer is simply – No. Just because a chemical carries an eco-label does not mean it is more sustainable than a well-established, high volume ‘traditional’ product that does not.
It is critical that professional consumers understand that ingredients need to be assessed on the basis of their potential hazard rather than the actual risk of using them in small quantities in cleaning products. We have mentioned this previously that any chemical can be safe or unsafe—it all depends on the concentration present and how the chemical is used.