Clorox Aims to Show that 'Green Works'

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by: Joel Makower

Can a major consumer packaged goods company with a name indelibly associated with household bleach become a leading light in the green marketplace?

That’s the hope of Clorox, the Oakland-based company, which this week is launching its first new brand in twenty years: Green Works, a line of cleaning products that are, in the company’s words, “at least 99 percent natural” — made from coconuts and lemon oil, formulated to be biodegradable and non-allergenic, packaged in recyclable bottles, and not tested on animals. The initial launch includes five products: an all-purpose cleaner, a glass cleaner, a toilet bowl cleaner, a dilutable cleaner, and a bathroom cleaner.

It’s an intriguing moment. Green Works enters the marketplace with a near perfect storm of market conditions: growing mainstream consumer demand for green products that don’t require compromise or sacrifice; significant interest from Wal-Mart and other big retailers in pushing greener products to the masses; a product that seems competitive with the leading green brands; and endorsement from Big Green.

That last item comes in the form of an “alliance,” just announced, with the Sierra Club, which has endorsed Green Works and whose logo will appear on Green Works labels starting around Earth Day. Sierra Club will receive an unspecified financial payment. Sierra Club doesn’t often endorse products, especially ones from big companies. The last one I can recall was Ford’s Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV, back in 2005.

The idea of Clorox as a green leader may strike some as odd. The company is known mostly for its flagship product, Clorox Bleach, which is seen by some as a stain from an environmental perspective, though the company says the product is misunderstood and safe. (Green Works products do not contain bleach.) Household bleach, it explains, is a water-based solution containing six percent sodium hypochlorite, whose chemical symbol, NaOCl, is essentially table salt (sodium chloride, or NaCl) with a molecule of oxygen. That is, bleach comes from, and degrades into, salt. (You wouldn’t want to drink it, but you wouldn’t want to eat a cup of salt, either.) Moreover, the company points out, bleach’s disinfectant properties are essential to public health — endorsed by the World Health Organization and others.

Some environmentalists warn against using bleach, pointing out that it is toxic and corrosive and can create suspected carcinogens in the water supply. Suffice to say, Clorox refutes this. “The bleach cycle — from production to use to environmental fate — is simple and sustainable,” it maintains.

So, can The Clorox Company become a green brand leader? I spent some time last summer talking with the company about Green Works, part of a small consulting project. I was asked to help Clorox think through how it was positioning both Green Works and the company itself in advance of the product launch. I met with the Green Works brand and marketing managers, as well as the company’s corporate responsibility staff — a relatively new function there.

What I found was that the company — whose brands include Glad, Formula 409, Liquid-Plumr, S.O.S. Pads, Kingsford charcoal, Ever Clean kitty litter, Brita water filters, Hidden Valley salad dressings and, as of about ten weeks ago, Burt’s Bees personal care products — had a relatively blank slate from an environmental perspective. It did not have any significant  skeletons. It enjoyed a solid compliance record, has joined several voluntary programs to reduce waste and emissions, and has received modest recognition for its performance. Except for concerns about bleach, it has been largely off activists’ radar. From an environmental perspective, it was neither a leader nor a laggard.

Under CEO Don Knauss, who joined the company in 2006 from Coca-Cola, Clorox began to recognize that environmental and social sustainability are of growing importance for the company. By the time I showed up in July, Clorox had undertaken efforts to reduce its packaging and had begun to inventory its carbon footprint across its North America operations. (Among other things, the company is working to make the Green Works manufacturing process carbon neutral.)

Green Works seems to have potential to be a breakthrough brand — a line of cleaners competitive, environmentally speaking, with the leading green brands like Seventh Generation and Method, effective enough to wear the Clorox label, priced less than other green cleaners, and enjoying widespread distribution; Wal-Mart, for one, will be featuring the products in its stores. If one of the goals of the green consumer revolution is to get brand leaders to create greener products at affordable prices, this seems a significant step in the right direction.

Green Works’ roots go back about three years, when a small group of individuals within the company began investigating the green-cleaning market and conducted market research. Through a market-segmentation exercise, they identified a slice of the consumer market they dubbed “Chemical Avoiding Naturalists,” consumers who wanted greener cleaners but felt the incumbent products didn’t work well, came from brands they didn’t know or trust, were too expensive, and weren’t always available where they shopped. These are the folks who want strong, effective cleaners, but worry about their health effects — the ones who say, “Let’s open the windows and send the kids outside — we’re going to clean now!”

As the team developed and tested products with real consumers, they recognized they had a potential hit. “We were actually in a perfect position as a company,” Jessica Buttimer, Green Works’ director of marketing, told me last fall. “We have the Clorox brand. We have these distribution channels and great relationship with Wal-Mart. We have the science to make an efficacious product. And we have the scale to charge just a 20 percent premium, not a 100 percent premium.” Moreover, Buttimer and her team found that consumers trusted the Clorox brand and the fact that a greener cleaner was coming from a company they’d known for years.

But the kicker was that the product actually did what it was supposed to do. “We did blind testing versus the market leaders,” says Buttimer. “We were at parity or better in performance, which as a chemical company, you can imagine, was a huge surprise — that these things, with 99% or more natural ingredients, work as well as Lysol, 409, and Pine-Sol.”

Time will tell whether Green Works will be a game-changer — whether it will make green cleaning more affordable and accessible to the masses. But the potential is there. Clorox doesn’t launch a new brand unless it sees a $100 million or greater market opportunity.

But there’s a potentially bigger story here. Clorox — a 95-year-old, relatively stodgy company — seems to have discovered its green gene. CEO Knauss has identified sustainability as one of three core consumer trends with which he wants to align Clorox products. The combination of Green Works, Burt’s Bees, and Brita give it a toehold in that market space, a foundation on which it can build more offerings. Already, additions to the Green Works line are being planned.

All of which has invigorated the company, says Buttimer, a thirtysomething mother of two who has become the corporate face of Green Works. “I can’t keep my calendar clear of associate marketing managers, our entry-level positioning and marketing people, asking, ‘How do I work on this project?’ Or people coming to me and announcing, ‘My parents are members of Sierra Club.’ Everyone wants to be involved.”

Moreover, she adds, “What’s really exciting is that we’re building knowledge and confidence within the rest of the company that we can do the same things with a lot of our other product lines.”

A green Clorox? Anything’s possible.

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