It’s become apparent that sooner or later, every market will be made over in the millennial image. What started with brands like Glossier and Warby Parker has now grown to include direct-to-consumer toilet paper and consciously-crafted olive oil with packaging so hip it could have been designed by Rachel Comey. Now, the cleaning supply industry is being similarly disrupted, with so many new brands touting alternatives to traditional cleaners that aren’t just eco-friendly, but are also elevated, even aspirational. Don’t be surprised if the concept of the "shelfie" expands to include shelves of cleaning supplies.
It’s worth acknowledging that Tom’s of Maine has been producing green cleaning products since the early 1970s and Seventh Generation, one of the most well-known and widely distributed green cleaning brands, has been around for three decades. But what these newer brands — ones with dreamy, evocative names like Gaia, Full Circle, and Truce — are doing goes beyond better ingredients. They want to give the act of cleaning itself a rebrand. Monica from Friends aside, most people don’t enjoy washing their baseboards and scrubbing down the inside of their ovens. For most of us, caring for our homes is the epitome of a chore. But does it have to be? A few years ago, putting on eye cream wasn’t anyone’s idea of a riveting activity, and now skin care is a shared self-care obsession in certain circles. What if, with the right ingredients and packaging and attitude, the same thing could happen for cleaning house?
Many entrepreneurs seem to have come to this conclusion simultaneously, because my inbox is regularly inundated with related pitches. There’s Grove Collaborative, an online store which makes its own products and also sells bigger brands like Dr. Bronner’s and Method; Supernatural, a brand that uses essential oils and is sold on Goop; Cleancult, which comes in recyclable vessels resembling milk cartons; Love Home and Planet, which uses the tagline #smallactsoflove; Laundress, which makes cleaning and laundry products in black-and-white bottles chic enough to display; Murchison-Hume, which recently collaborated with fashion designer Jenni Kayne on limited-edition hand and dish soap, and so many others. If the shelves of your local grocery store don’t accurately reflect this boom, that’s because many of these products are sold exclusively online.
“One of our taglines is ‘clean butt naked,’” says Suzy Batiz of Supernatural, who is also the founder the bathroom spray brand Poo-Pourri. “The reason I did that — the reason you see naked people all over our site — is because the products are so gentle that you can actually clean naked. It’s the opposite of what you’re doing now, which is covering yourself up to clean your home.”
Supernatural products come in concentrate form — a popular shipping/packaging technique among green cleaning brands because concentrates weigh much less and therefore cut down on the overall carbon footprint — with elegant reusable glass spray bottles in which to mix with water. It took Batiz and a “hippie chemist friend” over two years to develop the formulas, which are made with aromatherapeutic oils — the same stuff that’s in scented candles and lotions — and sold for $75 per starter kit, or $10 per individual vial of concentrate.
Batiz started the company after her mother, a lifelong housewife, died of complications from Myelodeplastic Syndrome (MDS). Many in the medical community, including the doctor who treated her mother, theorize MDS may be caused by exposure to chemicals like benzene, which is present in many traditional cleaning products, as well as gasoline, soda cans, and cigarettes. “She cleaned with these toxic chemicals,” Batiz says. “I watched my mom die of this disease that seemed totally preventable. If it’s caused by chemical exposure, let’s just not expose ourselves to chemicals.”
When it comes to cleaning supplies, regulations are notoriously murky. The FDA does not require manufacturers to list their ingredients, and while some still do, it’s not standard practice. It also means it’s easy for brands to pretend to be something they’re not. Like “organic” labels on food, “green” is essentially meaningless. It’s little more than a marketing term.
“With ‘clean’ products, that’s not a chemical term. It has no meaning when it comes down to the actual chemistry of their ingredients,” says Elizabeth Trelstad, a chemist and the founder of Beaker, a website that vets cosmetics and home care products based on their ingredients. “This wave of ‘green’ formulation — most of the companies are still using majority synthetics and are really just creating a brand aura around the idea of green.”
Supernatural does list their ingredients, though, and it’s hard to dispute that products made of essential oils are probably better for you than ones with harsh, synthetic chemicals. But Batiz also says Supernatural products actually clean better than their more traditional competitors. I asked Trelstad if that could really be accurate. “Traditional, industrial cleaning products get their jobs done very effectively, but sometimes to a detriment,” she explained to me.
“I think an easy analogy that helps people understand this is facewash: most of the facewash on the market cleans your face really well. But a cleaner that works ‘well’ isn’t necessarily the best for you, because in working well, it strips some of your natural oils and sebum and you actually have worse skin. We, as consumers, don't always think of chemicals working in the ways that are best for us and for our needs,” Trelstad says. (Yes, another parallel between the skincare and cleaning supply industry has unexpectedly emerged.)
Trelstad is careful to note that this is a very generalized breakdown. To find which specific products clean the best or are the safest requires a chemical deep-dive, which is exactly what Beaker is beginning to do. But the bottom line is, if you feel good about what you’re cleaning with, you’re likely to do it a lot more often. The mere joy of having a clean house is a fine motivator (for some of us), but being genuinely invigorated by the act is even better. “The number one feedback I get all the time is, oh my gosh, I clean so much more, or my spouse hated to clean, and now he or she is cleaning,” says Batiz.
To this end, brands like Grove Collaborative are approaching marketing the same way a fashion house or beauty brand might, with limited-edition, seasonal collections. Their current offering, “Wildflower,” features things like dish soap with notes of bluebell, lily, and daisy and a metal cleaning bucket with a floral motif. Can these novelties ensure the excitement doesn’t wear off, exposing cleaning as the Cinderella-pumpkin-carriage it really is? We’ll see. But brands are certainly not the only ones helping conscious cleaning to become as mainstream as working out or juice cleansing or any other semi-unpleasant but nevertheless popular pass-time.
Chief among clean-positive figures is Marie Kondo. As anyone who has read her book or watched her Netflix show knows, Kondo is the patron saint of the house-cleaning-as-self-improvement movement. She emphasizes caring for one’s belongings and the cultivation of a clutter-free space, while touting the transformative nature of these experiences. And it’s working. A couple years ago, giving a friend cleaning supplies as a gift would be an act worthy of phone number deletion. Now, it might be kind of cool. Especially if they just finished binging Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. (Speaking of which, her company, KonMari, is now selling an $89 set of drawer-organizing boxes; perhaps Kondo-branded cleaning solvents are somewhere down the road.)
And what does it mean that the generations of women finally emancipated from the home are attempting to reclaim the responsibilities of their grandmothers? The irony isn’t lost on anyone. KonMari has been both lauded as having a “secret feminist message” and criticized for upholding patriarchal values. But the thing is, no one’s being shamed into scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush until it sparkles. Instead, Kondo and these upstart cleaning brands espouse a celebratory philosophy: at long last, we finally get to do things — everything, including toilet-cleaning — on our own terms.