Choose your chemical: How are brands building better cleaning products?
A host of consumer brands have launched products that help us keep our homes clean without compromising on sustainability. But it’s not easy to bring these new formulas to market
When Sarah Paiji Yoo, founder of plastic-free cleaning company Blueland, appeared on Shark Tank in September 2019, she couldn’t have known that her demonstration of adding tablets to water to create cleaning sprays would kick off a chain reaction among consumers and entrepreneurs alike.
“When we first launched Blueland, the concept of refilling your cleaning products and using your own water at home was new,” she says. “But [it was] intuitive, and we were able to raise awareness. Now it's a consumer trend in the US that has hit the mainstream.”
Sarah adds that, according to Mintel, 40% of consumers are now interested in cleaning products that use refillable packaging. And in response, a number of sustainability-focused companies including Aer and Kinfill have since launched to compete against Blueland with their own variations on the “just add water” format.
Meanwhile in the laundry space, Smol has been selling laundry capsules via subscription since April 2019, and has since added dishwashing tablets, fabric softeners and its own refillable cleaning sprays to its range. In October, Dirty Labs launched with a laundry detergent made with natural ingredients, promising that its formula could help our clothes to last longer.
It may appear as though this space has experienced a sudden flurry of launches, but the majority of these brands have spent years finding the right partners and testing their products to make sure they don’t just look good – but that they actually work as well as the incumbent brands they are going up against.
“If you take any of these brands that have been around for decades, their formulas have been perfected,” Rakesh Narayana, global director of New Ventures at Reckitt Benckiser (the maker of Dettol, marketed as Lysol in the US), says. “It’s hard to do that quickly. It’s why you see more startups in the food and beauty space, but not hygiene.”
Sarah says it took over two years of continuous development to get Blueland’s products ready to launch, with many of the manufacturing and R&D processes having to be built from scratch. “It’s something that simply wasn’t done before,” she says. To bring its concept of tabletised cleaning sprays to life, Blueland had to recruit chemists that could set up the company’s own lab, and seek out manufacturing partners that had the machinery required to actually make the tablets (most manufacturers in the cleaning space don’t have experience working with dry products).
To perfect its laundry tablets was a two-and-a-half-year process, Smol’s founder Paula Quazi says. Meanwhile the company’s cleaning sprays, which launched in October, had been in development since the business launched in April 2019.
“The challenge has been that as you become more green or eco-friendly, a lot of times the effectiveness doesn’t stick,” David Watkins, co-founder of Dirty Labs says. “You’re constantly trading off. With Dirty Labs the key thing we want to show is that by changing the tech platform we’re building on, we can retain market-leading levels of cleaning power.”
Dirty Labs’ detergents don’t contain petrochemicals and have been formulated using biodegradable and bio-renewable ingredients. This couldn’t be done using the normal processes for making laundry detergent, David says, meaning an entirely new scientific process had to be developed. “For startups, a lot of times they don’t necessarily have the technical expertise on the core team,” he says. “A lot of the time [with direct-to-consumer] you’re finding a great supplier and tweaking it for your brand, there’s not a lot of core innovation happening.”
But even with a wealth of experience – Peter He, Dirty Labs’ chief scientist and co-founder, has had previous stints working at Unilever and chemicals company Henkel in formulation and product development – the company spent three years getting its detergent ready to launch.
Such long-winded R&D processes are an expensive business, made even more difficult by the fact investors are often reluctant to invest in consumer goods companies that can’t yet show what their product actually is. Smol’s founder Paula says seed funding from friends and family was crucial to keeping things going during that stage. When refillable cleaning spray brand Spruce launched in September, it did so with a pre-sales model to help out with cashflow.
The pandemic has now presented a once-in-a-lifetime test to see if these investments have paid off. As the supermarket started to run out of cleaning products, many consumers turned to these new entrants to make sure they could stock up on essential items. Paula says that not only have Smol’s sales have surged during this period but, crucially, its churn rate has remained pretty stable – meaning customers are sticking around.
But this doesn’t mean that it’s time to get complacent – and there is still a long way for these brands to go before they can become the next Clorox. The market opportunity remains huge: according to IRI, 99.6% of homes buy household cleaning products, while 2017 figures show that the average US family spends around $600 a year on these items, including $85 a year on laundry detergents.
Dettol may have spent the best part of a century perfecting its formula, but it will always be tough for it to compete with brands that are baking sustainability and convenient purchasing options (including subscriptions) into their offerings from the get-go. “[These new] brands are happy to make the hard compromises,” Rakesh says. “Dettol has been saying it kills 99.9% of germs for decades now – there’s never going to be a world where we say ‘actually, we’re 99.1% [effective] but we do all of these good things’.”
Still, large CPG players are cottoning on to the popularity of these new formats, with Unilever launching a super-concentrated version of its Cif surface cleaner in July 2019.
“Our biggest challenge is protecting the reputation of refill products, given that many of the follow-on players are not using effective formulas or sharing third party efficacy testing results,” Blueland’s Sarah says, adding that in order to safeguard its brand reputation and intellectual property, Blueland now has over 40 patents pending. “We are continuing to innovate and continuing to push into the next frontier and create never-been-seen before solutions that we believe will help save our planet.”
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