Serena Ng of The Wall Street Journal reports today on the murky world of marketing for “green” and “natural” household products. Ads for these flower-scented and creatively-named brands often claim—or, at least, strongly imply—that they are safer and healthier that mainstream cleaning and deodorizing agents. Such claims are often made even when both products are chemically similar or borderline identical.
Ng points out that Nature’s Power laundry detergent, sold proudly by Whole Foods, contains sodium laureth sulfate, which they produce from vegetable oil. Arm & Hammer (owned by the same company, Church & Dwight), makes detergent that also contains sodium laureth sulfate, except in Arm & Hammer’s case, it is made from petroleum. It’s the same chemical compound, but when it goes into Nature’s Power it is “plant-derived,” and when it goes into Arm & Hammer, it’s a synthetic petrochemical.
That kind of distinction without a difference has recently come to anger the consumers who assumed that there was, well, a difference. Cosmopolitan, for example, reported yesterday that home, baby, and skin-care products maker The Honest Company is being sued by customers for claiming that their products don’t contain any sodium laureth sulfate, although lab tests allegedly contradict that. Cosmo’s editorial staff, by the way, is presumably on the story because of the connection to Honest Company cofounder and Teen Choice Award–winning actress Jessica Alba.
This kind of “natural” product puffery has become a big business, in part because of environmental scare campaigns that have worked to convince people that common, harmless personal care products are secretly about to kill them. CEI adjunct analyst Dana Joel Gattuso has done excellent work debunking the claims that household and personal care products are giving us all cancer, as has former CEI analyst Lee Doren, in particular in his critique of the scaremongering video “The Story of Cosmetics.”
Despite valiant pushback, however, there is a persistent demand for products whose appeal is based on this unfortunate mix of naturalistic fallacy and activist misinformation. For that reason, I found it heartening to see that the opposite marketing strategy is still working with at least some consumers. The current “Bleach Means Clean” TV campaign by Clorox mocks competing products that feature flowery labels and scents and emphasize mildness rather than effectiveness. Instead, pitchwoman Nora Dunn emphasizes the disinfecting quality of chlorine: “After the stomach flu ravages my home, am I supposed to believe that an ocean breeze is going to blow it away? Please. I know what clean smells like: bleach. The same bleach that knocks down dysentery and cleans up crime scenes.”
Most American households hopefully aren’t the scenes of bloody crimes or dysentery outbreaks, but they are still places where disease-causing microbes can cause serious illness. That’s worth remembering when you’re considering the characteristics that are really worth paying for in the cleaners and cleansers aisle.