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P&G Makes the Case to 100 Million Americans: Cold Water Washing Works

Raz Godelnik
| Friday September 30th, 2011 | 3 Comments

Fact A: Cold-water detergents are better for the environment.

Fact B: Cold-water detergents save consumers money on energy while providing them with results equal to hot-water washing. They even cost about the same.

Sounds like a win-win offer, right? So why do consumers avoid cold-water detergents? The answer is actually simple: They don’t care too much about fact A and they’re not so sure about fact B, specifically on how well cold-water detergents do their job. The fear that these products are inferior causes consumers to ignore the energy savings and stick with the hot-water detergents. Now, a new campaign from P&G wants to change this once and for all.

Last week, Procter & Gamble unveiled three new commitments at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). One of them is that P&G will reach 100 million U.S. households by Earth Day 2013 with the information needed to convert from warm/hot water laundry habits to cold water washing. This campaign will be held in partnership with the Alliance to Save Energy, and through P&G’s Tide brand and Future Friendly conservation education campaign. It is also part of P&G’s corporate sustainability goal of converting 70 percent of total global washing machine loads to cold water washing by 2020.

U.S. sales data provides an indication of the challenge P&G is facing. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “sales data provided by Henkel shows that sales of cold-water detergents have declined by 16 percent in the last year in the United States. Procter’s data shows a 5 percent increase, although company officials acknowledge some stagnation in recent years.”

The evidence of the challenge to change customer behavior comes not just from the U.S., but also from Europe. According to the New York Times even in Germany, where consumers tend to be more environmentally conscious, manufacturers have discovered that cold-water washing is a hard sell. The article provides a quote of a German shopper that says it all: “I’ve never even tried it. I’m just skeptical that normal dirt and spots can be washed out with cooler water,” said Ottilie Theis, 53 who was shopping for detergent.

P&G is well aware to the need to educate consumers. Last year the company said that “in those instances where consumer habit changes are required to deliver the environmental benefit, consumer education will be part of the solution.” The only question is, of course, how to do it effectively. Here, P&G can learn some important lessons from the marketing campaigns of detergent makers in Germany from a couple of years ago, which were made in an effort to increase the sales of their cold-washing products.

The campaigns promoted the environmental benefits of the new cold-water products, but they didn’t really work. The company didn’t understand that consumers were mainly concerned with cleaning power, not by how much carbon emissions they might save. This is one of the basic green marketing rules and as green marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman explains most consumers will not trade off on the primary things that they look for in the products that they buy. In this case it means that even if consumers don’t need to pay a premium for the cold-water product, and it will save them money, they still won’t buy it if they aren’t convinced it will clean their clothes effectively. In other words, the job of P&G is not to convince U.S. consumers how good cold water washing is to the environment or to their utility bill, but how well it performs its job.

If you look at the cold facts there’s some evidence that this is actually the case. Last year, for example, Consumer Reports tested laundry detergents and P&G’s Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water came out on top on the ratings, while Tide’s Coldwater formulation finished 13 out of 32 detergents tested in top-loading washers. It’s fair to remind that it might be the case with some products but not necessarily with all of them – for example, one of the cold-water detergent tested, Biokleen Cold-Water 3X Concentrated was one of the worst performing for conventional top-loaders. In any case, P&G wants to make the case for cold washing based on its own Tide brand, so it looks like they’re in a good position to make such claims based on third party testing.

P&G challenged itself to make 70 percent of total washing machine loads run in cold water by 2020, an agressive goal. P&G estimates that currently 38 percent of laundry loads globally are done in cold water, so they need to almost double the existing market share. The 100 million U.S. households by 2013 commitment will be a good indicator of the feasibility of the 70 percent goal – if they can succeed in convincing the somewhat suspicious American consumers that cold washing is a win-win offer with no trade-off at all, they can definitely do it everywhere else and thus reach their goal.

Image credit: jubewong, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.


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  • I love my Electrolux EIFLW55HIW 27 Washer

    Reading this article and being a consumer I can say with certainty that the reason of the few sales of these new detergents is the fact that people do not trust and believe that warm water has a greater power than any other detergent for cold water. In addition, if the advertising is said that these new cleaners are environmentally friendly and save money the consumer may have the impression of the usual hype and then continue to buy ordinary detergents. To me, the promotion of these products should seek to demonstrate that these new detergents can wash very well and leave as secondary reasons the saving money and the ecological side. Of course, once these products start to sell consumers will realize on their own savings and environmental benefits.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

    • Zach

      Great point about the importance of promoting the functionality of this product.

    • http://gooutofthebox.wordpress.com Elena

      I leave in Ethiopia, where either you don’t have a washing machine and you cook your water to handwash clothes either you put them in the laundry, where I feel they are washing with cold water. I would have never done the both of them untill 4 months ago, before leaving from Milano. But since I am here I am getting to know that all aorund the world there are many different theories aorund what does make clothes being cleaned. FOr instance, my friend from Ghana sustain the thesys that jeans should never be washe din the washing machine, but just brushed with some water and hanged to dry.. I agree with the green marketing concept, the most important thing is to demonstrate and to show practically to consumers that their clothes will not just be cleaned, but cleaner and more long lasting washing them with a new detergent and cold water. In the end almost none of the average buyer is buying one detergent because want to save the environment, but we buy because we want to haev our clothes cleaned ; )
      eLe