The economy of nearly every country in the world is growing, and many people finally have discretionary cash to spend. Some is being plunked down on durable goods like cars, air conditioners, and cell phones. Some is devoted to upgrading daily consumables like food and internet services.
At the American Cleaning Institute’s recent annual conference, the focus was on what economic growth means for makers of laundry detergents and other cleaning products. At the same time, executives were trying to parse the shopping habits—increasingly developing online—of the millennials who are now taking over from the baby boom generation.
ACI is a trade organization whose members include cleaning product makers and the chemical companies that supply them with raw materials. The annual meeting, held in Orlando late last month, drew 1,000 senior executives whose back-to-back meetings seemed to keep them from ever enjoying the Florida sunshine.
Taking a break from customer meetings to talk to C&EN, Eric Peeters, global director of Dow Chemical’s home and personal care business, observed that the mood at the event was generally positive.
The economy was a big part of it. This year, Peeters said, “may be the first year where every region is growing.” Many ordinary people who long struggled to get by are starting to feel the glow of affluence—and the purchasing power that goes with it.
“I think there’s a trend toward ‘premium-ization,’ ” Peeters observed. It comes through in the cars and the electronics people purchase, he said, and also in the home care products they buy.
Linda Foltis, vice president for care, beverage, and agriculture R&D at Ashland, agreed, pointing to an ongoing “upscaling” of how consumers in well-off countries think about laundry. “People are investing in their laundry rooms as an extension of the rest of the home,” she said. “They want products in the laundry room that look as good as those in the bathroom.”
One way people can upscale is with more convenient cleaning product forms. Until the mid-1980s, powdered laundry detergents reigned in U.S. laundry rooms. A decade later, stout plastic bottles of liquids dominated.
Today, multiple product forms coexist. They include ultraconcentrated pump detergents like Method Products’ 8x liquid and single-dose detergents such as Tide Pods—now experiencing an unwanted moment in the limelight thanks to YouTube videos by teenagers who are eating them for attention.
In the U.K., Unilever recently launched Persil Powergems, colorful, confetti-like detergent discs that the firm calls “the first major innovation in laundry care in a decade.” Unilever says it is looking to extend the superconcentrated discs to other brands and markets.
In the laundry auxiliaries category, beads are now all the rage. For example, Procter & Gamble’s Downy Unstopables are scent-laden pellets that are added to the wash to enhance fragrance and keep it wafting from closets and drawers for weeks after washing is complete.
Chemical company executives may have their own laundry room preferences, but they are too diplomatic to back, for example, solids over liquids. “I don’t see the physical form as the defining feature,” said Xiaolan Wang, senior vice president of household care at Evonik Industries. “Either can work perfectly if formulated right.”
Getting the formulation right is not easy, though. Unilever says it spent more than $20 million to develop the Powergems at its R&D center in Wirral, England.
Unilever’s effort was not a surprise to the chemical executives at the ACI meeting. They should know, since ingredient suppliers play a big role in helping cleaning product makers manage format changes—especially ones that take out water or other fillers to leave densely packed active ingredients.
As detergents get more concentrated, the interactions among “the polymer, the surfactant, the enzyme” become more important, said Daniele Piergentili, head of BASF’s North American home and personal care business. “The physical chemistry that goes with it is something where BASF is very well versed.”
In addition to new forms, some consumers have developed a taste for specialized cleaning products. For example, the professional lacrosse player Drew Westervelt launched the detergent company Hex Performance in 2016 after finding that his synthetic-fiber-based sports apparel would stink even after washing.
Seeing an opportunity to enhance athletic wear detergents, Evonik used the conference to promote zinc ricinoleate, a castor oil derivative that chemically binds with malodorous molecules to inactivate them. Evonik has offered zinc ricinoleate as an ingredient for household products for years and is now formulating it to work well in new detergent forms such as pods, gels, and ultraconcentrates.
And Ashland announced an alliance with the French fragrance maker Robertet to encapsulate fragrances for home and personal care markets using Ashland’s Captivates encapsulation technology. One target customer for Captivates, Foltis said, is makers of detergents that are intended to clean athleisure wear, the stretchy synthetic garments that have become go-to casual clothing for many millennials. “We see an opportunity to reduce malodor to virtually nothing,” she said.
Hex is part of a panoply of sports-oriented detergents—other names include Defunkify and Sweat X—that are sold primarily on Amazon.
Indeed, Amazon and other online shopping outlets are beginning to shake up the staid cleaning products world.
At the World Conference on Fabric & Home Care in Singapore two years ago, speaker Torsten Pilz, who was then Amazon’s vice president for worldwide operations, gently chastised the industry for not adapting their product forms and packaging to retail e-commerce.
In the interview with C&EN, Dow’s Peeters agreed that using UPS or FedEx to ship heavy bottles of potentially leaky laundry detergent doesn’t make economic or ecological sense. “Packaging can be part of the solution—how do you make the package lighter, smaller, and still resistant to leakage,” he said.
Also, as in other industries, e-commerce is forcing faster cleaning product development cycles, according to BASF’s Piergentili. “In the past, there was a tendency to wait until product development was completed and perfect before a launch,” he said. “Now when companies are at a 90% solution, they launch.”
Dietmar Traeumer, who works with Wang at Evonik, sees the changes wrought by e-commerce going even deeper.
Traditional shopping is tactile, based primarily on look, smell, and feel in the store aisle. “You decide on a product much before the application,” Traeumer said. “E-commerce can change that. The application decides the best product.” Moreover, other people’s opinions, irrelevant in the supermarket, suddenly matter online.
More change is coming, he expects. Auto-dispensing washing machines that consumers preload with bulk detergent are already here. Next, Alexa-enabled devices will be contacting Amazon to order supplies for these machines when they run low.
That’s a very different path from detergent manufacturer to laundry room than the one product developers and consumers are familiar with today. The product forms best suited to work along this new supply chain may not exist yet, but chemical companies say they are ready to help their cleaning-product customers develop them.