When I speak in public, I like waving tangible objects (aka 'realia') around to break up the dreaded monotony of Powerpoint slides. At the LloydsTSB event last week I used two different clothes washing products to illustrate some points. The thinking behind the two products, Ecover washing liquid (the picture shows fabric conditioner, but humour me) and Ariel Excel Gel, comes from two completely different perspectives, so I thought it would interesting to share.
Ecover is the archetypal 'green product' and is branded as such with all those trees and blue skies. It is made completely from natural, biodegradable materials in a solar powered factory in Belgium. It is branded green and does its job pretty well, but not as good as a mainstream product in my experience. So effectively Ecover is asking the consumer to accept a compromise on performance in return for a lower environmental impact. The caveat is that it contains palm oil so there are question marks over how sustainable the sourcing of the raw materials is in reality.
Procter & Gamble, who own the Ariel brand, tried the Ecover approach in the 1990s, producing a range of branded green products, but they failed in the marketplace. So instead they adopted a 'no-trade offs' rule - their products had to compete on price, performance and sustainability. They also took a life cycle assessment approach, identifying the energy used in the washing process and the extraction of raw materials as the key issues. The result is Ariel Excel Gel, recently named the best clothes washing product Which magazine had ever tested. Its gel nature means it is compact (ie it uses fewer raw materials) and that the user is more likely measure out the correct amount compared to a powder or liquid. But the big breakthrough is that it can work at 15°C, halving the amount of energy used in washing clothes. It is not branded green - just the 15°C on the front and a web URL for more info on the back.
Which is better? That's a difficult question to answer. Apart from the palm oil issue, Ecover is probably more green (being almost solar, cyclic, safe*), but the user takes the hit in performance, meaning that it is unlikely ever to escape its green consumer market niche. The Ariel product takes an eco-efficiency approach* and it gives the user the opportunity to use less material and a lower wash temperature, but its green credentials are dependent on that consumer behaviour (the temperature dial on my washing machine creeps magically upwards over time). Its excellent performance and mainstream branding means that it is a mass market product, so if that shift in consumer behaviour does happen in practice, Ariel will probably have a bigger positive impact.
* If you want to know the difference between solar, cyclic, safe and eco-efficiency, check this video out.