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Clorox “Green Works”

By Karina | February 4, 2008

I just found out while I was writing the post about “sell-out” companies that Clorox has launched a new product line called “Green Works.” I guess the line was just launched – Treehugger discussed them a couple of weeks ago (and you know, I’m always geekily pleased to find out that I’m not THAT far away from cutting edge information). The article is a pretty comprehensive discussion of the different chemicals that are used and how some “natural” alternatives aren’t the be-all-end-all.

Clorox states:

With the aim of creating a practical way to green your home without making trade-offs, each product contains over 99% natural ingredients that are biodegradable. Green Works™ cleaners are not tested on animals and use recyclable packaging.

That’s pretty amazing, right? It’s kind of a groundbreaking moment in commercial cleaners.

One of the innovative things that Treehugger also points out is that the ingredients are listed on the label. When do you get a chemical company that does that? I have to say, though – the ingredients issue is really what got me raring to write this post in the first place. Clorox does list all of the ingredients – you can find them on their website here - but these ingredients are not some kind of magical formulation. Let’s break it down for a couple of their products:

All Purpose Cleaner

The weirdest thing in this bottle is the surfactant – which is generally just a waxy substance that weakens the surface tension of water, allowing the solution penetrate through water and onto the surface below. You know what works really well as a surfactant? common soap. The ethanol? basically just an alcohol. Sounds like you could whip this up with a spray bottle of water, a jigger of vodka, and some essential oils. If you really wanted to be fancy put in a drop of Dr. Bronner’s castile and you’re good to go.

(don’t tell anyone but the dilutable cleaner and the glass cleaner have essentially the same ingredients.)

Let’s try another one: The TOILET BOWL (gross!) cleaner:

The weirdest stuff in this one is the lactic acid and the citric acid. You know one source for citric acid? Lemon Juice! you know what else does the trick? Vinegar, with it’s small concentration of citric acid and large concentration of acetic acid. And as our lovely Jenn knows, vinegar is an awfully effective cleaning solution! Lactic acid is generally used as a pH buffer or as a preservative in foods, and is probably used here to preserve the mixture (as there isn’t any other preservative listed). So, how would I make this toilet bowl cleaner in my home? I might mix together water, vinegar, and some corn starch for thickening so it sits on the walls of the toilet bowl longer. Again, to fancy it up I’d add the Dr. Bronner’s.

The other ingredient you’ll come across is in the bathroom cleaner – glycolic acid. This is a fruit acid found in sweet foods like grapes and sugar cane, and works well to get rid of rust. you know, I hear that a rag soaked in vinegar does an equally good job of getting rid of hard water or rust stains if you leave it over the stain for a little bit. work smarter, not harder!

All of this stated, in their FAQs Clorox has this exchange:

Q. Why is Green Works™ more expensive than traditional cleaners?
A. The cost of natural ingredients is significantly higher than what is used in traditional cleaners. Green Works™ products cost less than other natural cleaners and when you consider they are more natural and work as well as traditional cleaners the premium price is a good value.

Riiight. More expensive. Have you SEEN the giant jugs of vinegar in the grocery store? they cost, like, 2 bucks. Granted that’s not organic vinegar, but I am pretty sure this is a slight stretch for Clorox. Unless bleach is incredibly incredibly cheap to produce, and it may well be!

Commentary on ingredients and cleaner alchemy aside, I just “love” the rhetoric on their overview webpage:

After working many years to perfect our formula, we tested our products to learn that our products work as well as traditional cleaners. This is because we created our natural formula from scratch and worked until we had a powerful formula that really works.

Traditional cleaners? Oh, by that you mean chemicals and not soap, hot water, and elbow grease? They do use the word “conventional” in the next paragraph, but you can see how a little twist of wording can dramatically change the entire concept.

I do think that this is a great step. I don’t think we need Clorox to tell us to use vodka, soap, water, and vinegar to clean our homes – I am entirely sure we can do that ourselves. Of course, there is also the old question about greenwashing – is this really a fundamental shift for Clorox, or are they trying to buy in to the ever-more-lucrative green market? There are already some really wonderful and natural cleaning products out there – from green brands like 7th Generation to the more trendy (clean naked!) Method. I wouldn’t be surprised if the huge success of Method cleaners lead Clorox to develop their own biodegradable line. Mostly, though, as Anne commented on the sell-out post: this might be the bridge that some people need to start using natural products. Frank is right – we’ve been conditioned our whole lives to fear dirt and germs and other horrible things which we can’t see, may make us sick, and which must be attacked with chemicals. If this is a Tiny step towards accepting that we don’t have to annihilate our homes with chemicals to clean it, I’m all for it. At least, for now. For Clorox to convince me that they’re serious about the environment they’re going to have to allow the market to catch on, and then start retiring all that other poison they sell.

What do you think? is Clorox greenwashing with this product, or is it a positive step towards elimination of harsh cleansing chemicals?

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Comment by Eliza
2008-02-04 09:03:03

I think it’s a little bit of both. Maybe Clorox Greenworks can be a gateway drug to the hard stuff!

Comment by Karina
2008-02-04 09:30:55

I know what you mean! the gateway drug is one of our favorite analogies here at TC!

Comment by Jacquelyn
2008-02-04 09:29:07

I absolutely agree with your points here, but I do think that Clorox’s shift may help the millions of brand-loyal folks to have confidence in green products. And, while most of these cleaners can be made at home, I think you’re taking Clorox to task a little unfairly. Are the formulae for Seventh Generation or Friendly Products any different?

Comment by Jacquelyn
2008-02-04 09:29:42

…that should be “Earth Friendly Products” above. :)

Comment by Karina
2008-02-04 10:56:48

I just love poking holes in corporate rhetoric! it’s all about “copy” in todays marketplace, and the clorox copy tweaked a couple of my pet peeves.

that said, I don’t know that seventh generation product information is available as freely as clorox. and like I said in the post, the fact that clorox is publicizing their ingredients is incredibly unusual and groundbreaking.

Comment by Sangu
2008-02-04 15:28:38

i have my seventh generation all-purpose cleaner in front of me:
Ingredients: Natural emulsifier to allow water to mix with oil (coconut-based surfactant), Natural alkalinity builder for enhanced beformaance (sodium citraite) Presevative (less than 0.05%), Water.

Comment by michelle
2008-02-05 12:12:31

sangu, you beat me to it. here are the ingredients in their kitchen cleaner (which i keep on my desk at work:)
“We disclose all INGREDIENTS: hydrogen peroxide (the active stain removal agent), biodegradable surfactants (for soil removal), citrus oil (for grease removal), food-grade, non-toxic oxygen stabilizers (to help the hydrogen peroxide last longer), water.”

so if we’re pointing fingers, you can make this handy dandy mix at home as well. I think for most it is more convenient to pick up a bottle of cleaner. I think that if clorox were truly dedicated to the environment they would begin to phase out their bleach and other junk, but that would take time because of marketing and customer confidence: brand recognition, trying out the new stuff, etc. because there are still loads of competitors that have similar non-green products out there with equally recognizable names. and it does likely cost clorox extra money to get the ingredients for their green line because of quantity. over time, it could well decrease.

Comment by cat147
2008-02-06 18:03:32

i might be the only “method” junkie on here but i’ll share what i just found on their website (after reading this wonderful post & all the comments):

your question
Why don’t you list your ingredients on your bottles?

our answer
This has always been a tough one for us. Compromise our minimalist design or list our full ingredients on the back of every package? Well, our best critics (you) have spoken and overwhelmingly ingredients it is. Feel free to do a search for your favorite product in our FAQ section for the complete ingredient listing.

We’ll soon be listing these ingredients on our packaging, but as always, method is naturally derived, non-hazardous, biodegradable and non-corrosive.

so, then i searched for one of my favorite items – all purpose spray cleaner. it is amazing what that stuff can clean up – and i’ve gos some experience thanks to my sweetheart who, quite frankly, can make a huge mess in a short amount of time.

“corn and coconut derived surfactants
soda ash
potassium hydrate
fragrance oil blend
purified water

(no harmful anythings)”

so, they don’t say exactly what surfactant they are using … hmm, maybe i’ll drop them a note for us engineering dorks. ;) i would expect that the “naked” line (fragrance free) would not contain the fragrance oils.

Comment by MamaBird
2008-02-04 09:31:25

I think that actually making your own cleaners is an investment in organization and time that many people (especially working parents) may not have the bandwidth for, so I think it’s great that a nontoxic cleaner’s available. That said, I make my own. Thanks for the tip about the vodka/cornstarch. Don’t forget baking soda as the magic cleaner tho — esp in the work smart not hard category. Baked on grease? Let sit over night (paste of baking soda + water). As for essential oils I think I read somewhere that they are being overused and hitting hard on marine life. I decided to skip them after that (plus lavender + tea tree are hormone disruptors). Tx for the great post.

Comment by Karina
2008-02-04 10:58:11

you’re right – and if someone is able to prioritize something else like spending time with family or reading good books because they can purchase a nontoxic cleanser, then I’m a fan!

I haven’t read anything about lavender and tea tree being hormone disruptors, do you have any sources for that? thank you!

2008-02-04 13:36:31

Hi there, MamaBird sent me your link because I blogged about my trial of Green Works two weeks ago over at organicmania.com.

Like MamaBird said, not everyone has the time, energy or organizational skills to make their own cleaners. (I’m in that category – heck, I barely have time to clean and now that I think about it, I haven’t cleaned since I wrote that post two weeks ago! Disgusting eh,?)

Anyway, I like GreenWorks because it does actually work really well and it is considerably less expensive than a lot of other green cleaning supplies that aren’t as effective. As for price, yes, you’re right — straight vinegar is cheaper but Green Works is always going to cost more in part because Clorox has to pay for marketing to promote this new product!

Re the lavender and tea tree – I blogged about that as an example of really egregious greenwashing in kiddie hair products. One of my sources was a National Institutes of Health press release you can access here: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/jan2007/niehs-31.htm

Love your blog!

Comment by Karina
2008-02-05 21:17:31

I talk a big game, but I also rarely clean! embarrassing! thanks for the link -

Comment by shanalulu
2008-02-04 10:15:49

I wonder if essential oils are harder on marine life than “conventional,” chemical-filled cleaners. Damaging, yes, but as bad? In any event, I don’t use them because they’re unnecessary.

I wish non-greenies knew how easy making-your-own is. I mean, I clean my kitchen, bathrooms, floors, and just about everything else with a mixture of half vinegar and half filtered water. It takes about four seconds to fill up a bottle. I don’t understand why people would rather drop $3-4 on a bottle of chemical crap.

Comment by Jenn
2008-02-04 10:55:54

I kind of think that the past few generations have had “do it yourself” marketed out of them (us)– we were raised to buy, and not to make. The current mega-trend of DIY is mostly seen in terms of products (knit a hat! sew a quilt!) but I think it’s going to start filtering down across all parts of our lives… including making our own cleaners. Our foreparents knew how to do this, and now we’re learning too.

Comment by shawnee
2008-02-04 11:06:05

excellent post! it’s interesting to see what the chemical breakdown is of the new “green” clorox products. i hope clorox’s move gets more people to take a closer look at what they’ve been using to clean their homes.

i’ve been phasing out the cleaners i’ve been using and started relying more and more on vinegar. i figure the Method stuff is probably pretty close to being watered-down vinegar anyway, so why not skip the middleman?

Comment by shanalulu
2008-02-04 11:11:36

Yeah, I’ve steered clear of the Method stuff, because it seems like a greenified, yuppified version of the same old thing. Cleaners don’t need to be bought in an endless succession of tiny, throwaway bottles. The plastic, the non-recyclable bits of the bottles, the cost, the fuel associated with shipping liquids long-distance. It’s nice to have a ready-made alternative, with designer scents to lure the masses in, but Method seems like little more than a frou-frou set of training wheels before the consumers with more sense just start making their own.

Comment by ilex
2008-02-04 12:00:15

Yeah, it’s greenwashing. Vinegar or baking soda really do clean anything. But for clorox, there would be no profit in vinegar and baking soda.

About 20 years ago, Arm and Hammer used to run late-night commercials for cleaning with baking soda and getting off the polluting chemicals. Does anyone remember those commercials?

Comment by Harper
2008-02-04 12:53:37

Interesting. I recently heard that Chlorox now owns Burt’s Bees and that they were planning on adopting some of BB’s practices so maybe this is part of that. However, I’m concerned that it will go the other way too — BB will adopt Chlorox practices (actually I guess that really is inevitable).

It is great to make your own products but I agree with the above comments that the choice isn’t buy greener products or make your own. The choice that this really may impact is whether to buy greener products or non-green products.

Insisting that people do everything right is an all or nothing attitude — and sadly, most consumers (I love Jenn’s comment, “raised to buy” – so true), given that choice would choose nothing. Baby steps and keep educating.

I do like the ingredients label change.

Comment by Karina
2008-02-05 21:29:24

there’s a NYTImes article linked to from the “sell-out” post all about the clorox/burts bee’s sale.


Comment by Frank
2008-02-04 14:23:18

3 points. First, I’m torn. On the one hand it seems to be simple, flagrant greenwashing. On the other hand, some people on a quick run to the store will probably pick this up instead of some far worse product.

Second, two big changes I would like to see. Recyl-ABLE packaging is not anything to crow about. The fact is, this product comes in millions (billions, eventually) of plastic spritz bottles. Some “Copy” bragging about their recycl-ED (60% or more post-consumer) packaging would impress me more than their recycl-ABLE packaging. Also, a “refill” product available in a concentrated form would be a real effort at green-ness, reducing packaging further, as well as shipping-related energy consumption.

Thirdly, it seems we need a better, more precise word than “Chemicals” to describe the unwanted stuff in conventional (or “traditional”) cleaners. Water, Wine, Sweat and Spit are all “chemicals”, but they are all natural, and mostly non-toxic. I said mostly, because I am well aware of the dangers of “dihydrogen monoxide” (see DHMO.org for more details, and bring a sense of humor, and/or a 6th grade chemistry book.)

Comment by Karina
2008-02-05 21:18:35

that’s a great point about the recyclable content of the bottles – I am such a recycling nerd, but it is rare that I find something made of recycled plastic!

Comment by Ruth
2008-02-07 10:11:46

NPR did a story about it this week. You scooped All Things Considered! :-)

I also noticed a piece about Clorox and Burt’s Bees, but I haven’t listened to it yet.

Comment by Karina
2008-02-07 11:02:06

I heard that on the way home and thought the same thing! I scooped All Things Considered! :)

2008-02-10 06:01:45

[...] Clorox “Green Works” [...]

Comment by Grocerygal
2008-02-23 11:33:38

I think that this is a good thing. Clorox is a trusted brand. This is going to get people to try green products without skepticism. Once they realize that these products work as well as thier chemical counterparts then they will quit buying the toxic stuff. People will realize that this product works, its better for the environment, and its better for thier own health. If they really wanted to sell this product they should aim it at parents who want not only for thier homes to be clean, but safe for little junior crawling around on the floor. I think it might not be the end all be all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Comment by Katherine
2008-09-19 16:36:37

Well, every little bit helps, right?
Especially since Clorox is ‘big’ brand (the household name stuff). Hopefully it will nudge the other Big brands to produce environmentally friendly lines, and eventually there will be less chemical/fake things being bought than ‘green’ ones. :)

Comment by Theri
2009-06-06 01:50:36

So, I have both… the Clorox and some homemade products… they each work just as well as the other… just that I’d rather spend the time to make because it cuts time off of going to the market.


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