The dirt on green cleaners

Why cleaning products have been slow to come out of the closet.

Credit: Dwight Allott

North America society is pretty messed up when it comes to grime: dust, odours and stains aren’t so much physical as psychological realities. We associate dirt with evil without a second thought: playing dirty, dirty tricks. On the other hand, we all know that cleanliness is next to godliness.

So it’s no wonder that even those who travel by bike or hybrid, eat organic local food, wear locally made sustainable clothes, and recycle at work and home often sheepishly admit to owning a bottle of bleach or a formaldehyde-laced bathroom cleanser. The promise of saving the environment hasn’t convinced anyone but the most ardent environmentalist to empty out their cupboards crammed with toxic cleansers.

Part of the problem has been due in no small part to packaging and poor marketing: who can blame shoppers for passing by ineffective, earnestly packaged green cleansers? But recently, several smart, well-designed effective eco-cleaners have made their way to the front of the shelves and into the shopping bags of both green and mainstream consumers.

Suddenly, green clean – a deeper, truer, purer type of clean – is not only possible but de rigueur. Consumers are turning to the new eco products because of their design, effectiveness and environmentally conscious formulations – often in that order.

Infographic: How much detergent do you need?

“People try it because of its packaging and design and maybe its story,” says James Roberts, owner of Batten Industries in North Vancouver, which makes Nellie’s Dryer Balls and Nellie’s Laundry Soda. “Then they buy it again because it works.” Nellie’s joins a host of local products in hitting all three marks.

Roberts, a 40-year-old with the energy and clothes of a teenager, got his start in 1991 making licence-plate key chains and selling them at the PNE. Over the years, he has accumulated an eclectic range of products, from the Aerolatte milk frother to customizable gift cards. He ­didn’t set out to make and sell an eco product, and is what he calls an “accidental environmentalist,” but along the way has become “converted.”

He admits to still being a contradiction – he drives a truck, for example. But he says he’s learned a lot about the environment along the way, and because he doesn’t have shareholders, he can run his business in a way that he believes is really ethical. Roberts says Nellie’s has been successful, “but for me it’s all about long-term; I don’t have to make the decisions based on what will keep investors happy.”

Someone brought the dryer ball idea to him five years ago, and Roberts bought the rights, then started selling the product at trade shows. It’s a simple idea: pop the bristly rubber ball into the dryer, and your clothes come out soft and fluffy – without the use of chemicals. They sold so well that the Shopping Channel picked them up. Then a company called On-Tel, which manufactures, markets and distributes “As Seen on TV” products, bought the rights to sell a version of them, called Dryer Max, across North America in big chains such as Wal-Mart, Zellers and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Roberts still carries his own line of the dryer balls and sells them to a niche market including Whole Foods, Choices and Restoration Hardware. The line is called Nellie’s, after his mother, a nurse, who “never ­wasted anything.” And it’s her image that adorns all the packaging, in 1950s retro illustrations. The design, his mom’s image, and what he calls “the story” are what make the line successful, he says.

Roberts came up with the “story” after he started selling the dryer balls. He explains that “people at trade shows are the best focus group.” Some had allergies; others wanted an eco-alternative to fabric softener. “All you have to do is read a box of Bounce,” Roberts says. “It says things like ‘not for use on children’s sleepware or garments labelled as flame resistant… Keep out of reach of toddlers and pets.’” At his travelling exhibition booth, Roberts places a dryer sheet in water, so people can watch the sediment form at the bottom.

After the dryer balls, Roberts developed Nellie’s Laundry Soda, because “the dryer isn’t the only problem.” He says people can’t believe they only need a tablespoon of the detergent and say it must be super concentrated. “No – we just don’t put fillers in it, and we don’t recommend you use more than you need.”

That’s one of his main criticisms of the laundry industry. “The recommended amount is what you’d need if you actually rolled around in the mud,” he says. And the measuring cup they provide is bigger than the recommended amount, so people use even more. “Imagine if everyone used just 20 per cent less detergent – the impact on big brands’ bottom lines. So they don’t tell you,” Roberts alleges.

But regardless of cost, waste or environmental impact, people have used toxic cleaners because there seems to be an ingrained, if subliminal, belief that only things that are bad for the environment can clean things properly. And because chemical manufacturers and advertisers have exploited the cultural fear of dirt for decades, green cleaners have a huge hurdle to overcome.

“I used to work on Mr. Clean,” says Marc Stoiber, the founder of Change, a green brand consultancy, “and when we’d go to visit housewives in their homes, we found that their value system all equates with cleanliness,” he says. “It’s about the feeling of being a good mother, doing what’s right for your family, being a good woman.”

He says it’s why products such as Method, a popular cleaning line with design-conscious packaging, are a success. “It works, which means I’m a good mom. It’s eco, so I’m a good Mother Earth.

And it’s hip, which means I’m not a sweatpants mom.” (In this case, packaging may trump
eco-consciousness; as Granville columnist Adriana Barton notes in her winter 2007 column, Method dish soap contains sodium lauryl sulfate, a known skin irritant, as well as artificial colours and synthetic fragrances.)

The design aspect is key. “People are very sensitive to the subtleties of design and what it says about them,” says Ailsa Brown, an account director at Rethink Advertising. She adds that anything hippie or earnest is doomed to fail, because those characteristics aren’t socially desirable – even in today’s environment of hyper enviro-awareness. Stoiber agrees that cleaning products, have to look attractive and aspirational.


Rima Wilkes, a professor of sociology at UBC, explains that’s because dirt is associated with poverty, and cleanliness with affluence. For example, she points out that Canada’s poorest province is a perennial target of Canuck humour, the punchline to a lot of Newfie jokes suggesting that people from Newfoundland are ­particularly dirty.

Cleanliness, on the other hand, is typically associated with the North American dream, Wilkes adds – the idea that self-improvement, hard work and determination lead to success.

According to this belief, laziness and dirtiness show that a person isn’t working hard enough, and is therefore of lower status.

So given that a person’s choice of cleanser directly affects their social status, consumers are particularly concerned – obsessed, some might say – with a product’s effectiveness. And many people still think that ammonia, bleach and other toxic chemicals are the only way to achieve that spotless gleam.

“It’s like the cough syrup campaign – you know, the idea that it works because it tastes
terrible,” says Drummond Lawson, the environmental scientist at Method. “But it’s not the ammonia that gets the windows clean,” he says; it’s all about the mix of different ingredients.
He says if you start with the goal of leaving out those nasty ingredients, it’s just as easy to make equally effective formulations.

But many people hesitate to take the risk. “With the Prius car, I can see that I’m still going to get from A to B; it’s still going to fulfil the function,” says Rethink’s Brown. “But with the cleaner, until I know it’s going to get out the spaghetti stains or the mould in the bathroom, it’s a different proposition.”

How to get people to try them? First, manufacturers have to create products so attractive that people want to display them on their sinks and counters. Then they have to get consumers to try the products, a tactic referred to by marketers as “driving trial.” Brown says one of her friends gives green cleaning products to people as gifts. Once they’ve tried them, they’re almost certain to buy them again themselves. And Method’s Lawson suggests continued
communication, mostly through media, about the effects of toxic cleaners and the new, effective possibilities available.

Some strategies are clearly starting to work. “I started doing this work in 2001, and since then there’s been a tremendous amount of reformulation in cleaning products,” says Mae Burrows, the executive director of the Labour Environment Alliance Society (LEAS), a Vancouver-based non-profit education society that helps Canadians identify and eliminate toxic chemicals in the products they use at work and home.

Burrows says most improvements have actually come through regulations concerning employee rights. “When you’re at work, you have the right to know if you’re exposed to a carcinogen or anything harmful,” she explains. “The employer has the responsibility to know what the chemicals are, and the employee has the right to request a substitute.” Those regulations have spurred many new effective, green, equivalently priced industrial cleaners to come on the market.

Ironically, the average housekeeper has no such rights: “But as a consumer, you have no right to know the ingredients in cleaning products,” Burrows adds.

A bit of research turns up some particularly nasty chemicals in a lot of common household cleaners. In order to comply with workplace regulations, manufacturers are required to
produce material safety data sheets listing the toxic chemical ingredients. Organizations such as LEAS have consulted these sheets and publicized their findings for consumers.

Burrows says some of the chemicals are particularly bad. For example, there’s 2-butoxyethanol (found in many carpet, tile, oven and barbecue cleaners, and multi purpose cleaners). It’s a carcinogen and among other things, causes damage to the development of male testes in fetuses.


There’s formaldehyde (found in many mould and mildew cleaners), which is also a known carcinogen. There’s thiourea (found in many tarnish removers), which is a possible human carcinogen. And there’s trisodium nitrilotriacetate (Sunlight laundry soap is the only detergent in Canada that still contains it), which is a carcinogen and has an environmental impact. (Sewage treatment systems like the one in Iona, B.C., are based on letting heavy metals settle to the bottom; trisodium nitrilotriactetate causes the heavy metals to remobilize and therefore go back into the waste stream.)

Burrows says if chemical names were listed on the bottle, consumers could easily look them up – websites such as describe the health effects in plain English, and provide links to the underlying scientific studies. She also says consumers would start to recognize many recurring chemicals – just as most now know what MSG or trans fats are, for example.

Burrows thinks labelling of ingredients will help, but she wants to go one step further: hazard-based labelling. Toxins affect humans in a few specific ways – as carcinogens, development or reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins. “I think if you started to put a C on a product that contains a carcinogen, for example, we’d see really fast changes. We have that for trans fats – why not consumer products?”

Burrows adds that labelling would quickly spur a “huge alternative green industry,” where people turn a “really good dollar on sustainability.” She suggests people contact their MPs to encourage the federal government to pass consumer labelling laws and adopt hazard-based labelling. And in the meantime, look for effective eco-products that are up to the task of competing with the toxic cleansers but don’t damage the health of people or the environment.

It used to be that if you wanted to clean green, you had to reach for frumpily packaged hippie products and live with the message they implicitly preached: if you really cared about the planet, you’d learn to live with that gravy stain. But a new generation of eco-conscious manufacturers and marketers have learned to embrace our obsession with cleanliness, and are churning out slickly packaged products that clean up our act without threatening our social values.

Green cleaners
Aspen’s All-Purpose Cleaner, Super Scrub, and Spot Remover products are made from natural ingredients (including seaweed) that are non-toxic, organic, and biodegradable. The West Vancouver-based cleaning company also has a home-cleaning service. Its “green team” uses these natural products, plus vinegar, baking soda and some good old-fashioned elbow grease. Products are available at Garden Health in Vancouver, The Vitamin House in West Vancouver, and Health Works in North Vancouver.

Shoppers Drug Mart’s eco-friendly house brand includes a range of non-toxic and phosphate-free products: Ultra Dish Soap, All-Purpose Surface Cleaner, and Tub & Tile Soap Scum & Stain Remover. Products are available at Shoppers Drug Mart stores.

This Toronto-based company has been making non-toxic household products since 1963 in response to a family member’s allergic reaction to dish detergents and shampoos. All Nature Clean products (laundry liquid, glass cleaner, pet stain remover, and barbecue and oven cleaner) are free of chlorine, ammonia, phosphates, and other known carcinogens and skin irritants. Products are available at Capers, Choices, Whole Foods and Save on Foods.

Free of ammonia, formaldehyde and other chemicals, this all-purpose cleaner was developed 1990 under the guidance of B.C. Research, and uses natural enzyme cleaners to lift dirt and grease. The non-toxic, organic and biodegradable product is marketed and distributed by North Vancouver-based Earthcare Sales & Marketing, along with Mother’s Choice (a hard surface cleaner) and Laundry Bar. Products are available at most IGA, Canadian Tire and Home Hardware stores or online.

You won’t find phosphates, chlorine, petroleum-based solvents, sodium lauryl sulfate, or sodium lauryl ether sulfate in Sapadilla’s Countertop Cleanser, Dish Soap and All-Purpose Cleaner. The Vancouver-made products are formulated from premium-grade, plant-based ingredients (naturally derived sugars work as a descaler) and are scented with 100-per-cent-pure essential oils. Products are available at Whole Foods Market, Drive Organics and Stong’s Market.

Since 1951, V.I.P. Soap Products has been manufacturing biodegradable laundry, household and personal-care products at its Mission headquarters. Formulated to have little or no impact on the environment, V.I.P. Soap Products’ line also includes Echoclean, a collection of phosphate-free and biodegradable dish soaps and all-purpose cleaners, and Granny’s, biodegradable, all-natural laundry powder. Products are available at Choices
Markets, Safeway, Stong’s Market and IGA stores.