With all the fuss over corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol and other potential replacements for gasoline the past several years, it is easy to forget that ethanol is an important component in detergents. An effective, if not the most environmentally friendly surfactant, ethanol helps keep those fabrics clean. For years, corn-based ethanol was an important ingredient in Procter & Gamble’s Tide detergent product line. But that is changing as P&G, in a joint announcement with DuPont, have announced a shift towards cellulosic ethanol that has been 10 years in the making.
This is an interesting development for those of us who have observed the ethanol industry the past several years. In part, the debate over fuel vs. food has kept us captivated, and then of course there have been the endless media advisories from startup companies promising a massive ethanol breakthrough “in six months!” Scores of six months’ later, the reach and scale of P&G and DuPont’s partnership could help cellulosic ethanol become more important in our country’s energy, and chemical, portfolios.
DuPont will produce the ethanol at the company’s biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa, about 40 miles north of Des Moines. The goal is to have 30 million gallons of ethanol processed annually, sourced from agricultural waste such as corn stover, the leaves and stalks that remain after corn is harvested. DuPont claims the refinery will emit zero carbon emissions. In turn, the resulting ethanol that will be an ingredient in Tide Cold Water detergent is a step for P&G in cleaning and greening its supply chain. In a curious nugget of information, both companies claim the resulting power saved is the equivalent of what is needed to do all the clothes washing in California for a month (how this figure was derived was not disclosed by either company).
Is this an altruistic or strategic move? Much of the reason a large firm such as P&G would make this change lies in marketing. The big consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are facing the reality that consumers want products that are more environmentally responsible: provided, of course, there is no decrease in product quality or performance. Cleaning products companies such as Method have ridden this consumer attitude to financial success as their products take up ample shelf space at retailers including Target. Now the giants in the cleaning products industry, including Unilever and P&G, see they have opportunities in taking a similar approach towards their products.
For example, P&G has taken steps to ensure their products are more sustainable. Earlier this year the company announced phosphates will be removed from all of its detergents sold worldwide, and more of its factories are now zero-waste. This change is not just affecting cleaning products—P&G has also promised to join the sustainable palm oil bandwagon and will clean up its paper and pulp products, using only certified or recycled materials.
Whether this change in sourcing succeeds depends much on consumer behavior. After all, all this cellulosic ethanol is going into a “cold water” detergent P&G pitches as an alternative to using more energy-intensive, and unnecessary, hot water for clothes washing. Nonetheless it is interesting to see two large mainstream companies work together and take an additional step in ensuring their products are more environmentally sustainable while they adapt to changing consumer demands.
Image credit: P&G
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.