Laundry detergent is looking a little different these days. A growing number of companies are making bulky plastic jugs smaller and concentrating the detergent or soap.
Without all that water, less fossil fuels are required for transport, because the products are lighter and more can be shipped in a single trip. New detergent formulas are changing to become ultra-concentrated liquids or even solid sheets roughly the size of an iPhone.
“Laundry detergent can contain up to 90% water,” said Lisa Karandat, co-founder of Good JuJu, a company that sells sustainable laundry sheets and solid shampoo and conditioner bars, among other things. “Those big heavy jugs require a lot of space to truck around the country.”
In addition to lower carbon emissions from diesel-burning delivery trucks, some companies are responding to public demand to minimize plastic pollution.
If more laundry soap were sold in concentrated bottles, it would sharply cut waste without taking away customer benefits, said John Moorhead, chief marketing officer for Seventh Generation, a company that sells non-toxic disinfectants, soap, and ultra-concentrated laundry detergent.
Reducing plastic pollution is essential to lowering carbon emissions, as nearly all plastics are made from fossil fuels.
In 2022, Seventh Generation launched a digital campaign that featured larger-than-life laundry jugs in inconvenient locations, such as the middle of shopping aisles, to highlight the products’ inconvenience and plastic use. The company also pays influencers on Instagram to advertises its ultra-concentrated detergent, dish washing liquid, and disinfectants.
But when products get smaller and more concentrated, how do you know it isn’t just “ shrinkflation,” an ongoing trend where companies are reducing the size of their product, but keeping the price the same?
“Concentration is distinctly different from down-ouncing, where material reductions can result in less for the consumer,” said Moorhead, who claimed his company’s concentrated solutions cost less per wash than the traditional product.
While the absence of water certainly makes a concentrated strip or detergent lighter, which in turn reduces carbon dioxide emissions, determining exactly how much is challenging.
The business group the Consumer Goods Forum said Ariel, a major detergent brand, reduced energy use by 28% in Europe when it went to concentrate. A handful of companies advertise reduced environmental impact, but pressure-testing their numbers is tough. P&G, which makes popular laundry brands Tide and Gain, did not respond to requests for comment on climate benefits of concentrate or sheets, nor did consumer products giant Unilever.
Sometimes the concentrated, lower-carbon products can be more expensive, because manufacturers are also trying to source ingredients ethically or use natural ingredients.
Good JuJu laundry strips, for example, use plant enzymes that can be expensive to test and bring to market.
“These companies pay their employees a living wage and use high quality ingredients,” explained Emily Rodia, owner of Good Buy Supply, a sustainable general store in Philadelphia.
Hazel Thayer, an environmental activist on TikTok, hopes any price differential will change as “they can scale up and become cost-competitive with the super-plasticky brands.”
Interest is increasing.
“The increased interest in concentrated and liquid-free products is not surprising, given the innovations that continue to evolve within the cleaning products industry,” said Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications, outreach, and membership at the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group for cleaning products brands.
Seventh Generation recently committed to phasing out large-format liquid laundry bottles to reduce plastic waste and will no longer sell laundry products that are 90 oz and above by 2030.
Some companies are actively encouraging shoppers to switch away from the detergent they’ve been using for years to the concentrated alternative.
Rodia said in her store she’s seen that some consumers find the switch intimidating. Becoming an eco-conscious shopper, she said, can be a journey.
“We have a range of ‘beginner products’ and then a lot of long-term options. Our goal is to have lots of people making small changes and not perfection,” she said.
Rodia said people of all ages are seeking concentrated detergents and other eco-friendly products.
“A surprising number of our shoppers are in their 60s and up. They are the generation that remembers a time before plastics and are excited that this way of living is having a resurgence,” Rodia said.
Gen Z is currently learning about climate change and watching it worsen in real time, she said.
While Gen Z consumers are likely to be enthusiastic about sustainability and eco-conscious shopping, many are also aware that some companies don’t live up to their sustainability claims. Doing that knowingly is greenwashing.
“Greenwashing is rampant,” said Thayer. “Transparency is key.”