Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | Features

Easy Being Green

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Like many good ideas, it began with a question.

Monica Nassif wondered: Why was every grocery store aisle attractive and appealing, save the one that shelved the toilet cleaner, Brillo pads, and sink scrub? The produce glistens in neat pyramids, baked goods beckon in baskets or under glass, deli items entice shoppers with their delicious aromas, and canned foods flaunt eye-catching packaging. All clamor for consumer attention—except the cleaning supplies. They sit stark and sterile, uninviting and stinky. Sometimes even dangerous.

“I would double-bag my cleaning products so they wouldn’t touch my food,” says Nassif, 79BSN. “Should you have to be that afraid?”

An increasing number of people view conventional cleaners with similar trepida-tion. As they become more aware of the potential health hazards that harsh cleaning chemicals can pose, consumers are turning to the latest example of responsible consumerism: green cleaning. In other words, choosing products and approaches that protect human health and the environment.

Nassif’s grocery store epiphany led to her founding in 1999 The Caldrea Company, an enormously popular line of upscale, natural cleaning products. Since then, Nassif has sold about 10 million units and doubled her revenue annually. In the market overall, officials affiliated with the natural products retailer Seventh Generation report that sales of green cleaning supplies have increased 18 to 25 percent each year for the last five years. Representing only one percent of the total market, these eco-friendly cleansers still have plenty of room to grow. But, clearly, Nassif has already capitalized on the trend.

Her philosophy is simple: Caring for your home should be as luxurious as caring for yourself.

The people who buy her lavender and pine all-purpose cleanser, citrus mint window spray, scented ironing water, and bar soaps seem to agree.

“Green cleaning has become the largest and most significant trend in the cleaning industry in decades,” says Stephen Ashkin, a national expert on the concept and president of a Midwestern consulting firm that educates clients about natural cleaning. A few years ago, he says, sales of these products were limited to specialized locations such as natural food stores. Today, they are a staple in most retail grocery stores and other outlets. In addition, more and more professional cleaning companies offer a “green” option.

Ashkin says the green cleaning trend is most evident in schools, healthcare facilities, and commercial businesses, which are steadily choosing natural options for the sake of their constituents and housekeeping staff. School district administrators in Chicago and Boston already require natural cleaners in their facilities. Last January, following examples set by Massachusetts and Minnesota, New York Governor George Pataki signed an executive order requiring state agencies and authorities to use only nontoxic cleaning supplies.

Maybe Grandma had it right all along. Her cleaning arsenal probably included the most basic ingredients: soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, borax—all applied with a coarse scrubbing sponge. We may think we need the tough stuff, but Seventh Generation President Jeffrey Hollender says that nontoxic alternatives have made such great strides that there’s really no longer any excuse for a poor-performing green cleaner. Still, conventional cleaners do offer the benefit of break-throughs such as optical whiteners, improved stain removal, and high perfor-mance in cold water washes. In some cases, cleaning with such fast-acting chemicals also takes less time.

So, what about germs? Get over it, say many experts. Germs are a fact of life. In many situations, it’s not important, necessary, or possible to kill every bacteria or virus. Improper food preparation and storage is probably the biggest threat from household bacteria, not a less-than-sparkling countertop. Exposure to some germs actually helps people develop healthy immune systems, says Haley Sinn, 02PhD, associate biological safety officer for the UI’s Health Pro-tection Office.

“I think the most important fact to keep in mind is that not all germs cause sickness and disease,” Sinn says.

Although green cleaning may have started primarily as an environmental issue, now it’s part of the public’s growing interest in healthier lifestyles. “Once people made the connection about how it could affect their health—that’s what really spurred the growth,” says Ashkin, who recently attended a cleaning industry trade show in Las Vegas where “green” proved to be the biggest news.

This doesn’t surprise Nassif, whose grocery store observations weren’t the sentimental response of a tree-hugger, but the keen observation of a former nurse with shrewd business sense. “I tried to think of one other thing that you hate to buy but have to,” she says. “I couldn’t. Even toilet paper’s quilted.”

Nassif was heartened to find that consumers were spending more than ever on their homes. More, in fact, than they were on their clothes. She discovered a marketplace frequented by environmentally sensitive, aesthetically motivated shoppers who would be happy to spend a few bucks on linen spray. For many people, though, eco-friendly cleaners remain an expense they can’t afford (unless they make their own). A 100-ounce bottle of laundry liquid from Seventh Generation, for instance, costs roughly $11.50, whereas the same quantity of Purex runs from $3 to $5.50, depending on sale prices.

For her luxury range of products, Nassif knew that great looks—and smells—were paramount. While a moonlighting chemist helped develop plant-derived formulas fragranced with essential oils, a designer created artistic packaging that people would not feel compelled to hide under the counter. Nassif oversaw the “fragrance profiles” herself, working with experts to devise unusual and elegant combina-tions such as citrus mint ylang ylang, lavender pine, and green tea patchouli. Now, Caldrea customers can buy dish soap that matches their countertop spray, floor cleaner, and laundry detergent.

The Minneapolis-based Caldrea distributes products to 14,000 locations across the country. The company makes private-label products for Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Harvey Nichols in London. It has its own lab, five full-time scientists, and more than 30 employees.

Even though she pays someone else to clean her house these days, Nassif still finds satisfaction in everyday chores—she wipes the sink, sweeps the floor and vacuums the rugs, washes the dishes. “It’s very meditative,” she says. “There’s a real sense of accomplishment. From dirty to clean.” And green.

Chemical Spills

Modern synthetic cleaning compounds might work faster and require less elbow grease, but they can also irritate skin, eyes, and lungs. Children can swallow or spill dangerous chemicals, often stored under the sink and within their reach. People with respiratory disorders may struggle with chemical residues that linger inside the home and workplaces.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside your home is likely two to five times more polluted than the air outside. Ironically, it’s largely due to the standard household products used to create a fresh, clean house. Household cleaners also contribute significantly to outdoor pollution. A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study found that nearly 70 percent of streams sampled contained detergent residues, while 66 percent harbored disinfectants.