COVID-19 alters cleaning trends

15:42 PM | November 9, 2020 | Sotirios Frantzanas

Consumers prioritize efficacy as well as sustainability of cleaning products amid pandemic

Companies in the home-care and industrial and institutional (I&I) cleaning business will have to adjust to the new reality created by COVID-19, which has caused consumers to prioritize convenience and e-commerce, and effectivity and stronger cleaners, and has reversed the “chemophobia” trend in cleaning products, according to a recent blog post on the North American website of BASF’s home care and I&I cleaning solutions business.

PIERGENTILI: Producers should aim for cleaning products
that combine efficacy with sustainability.

The main trends that had emerged in consumer behavior in the home-care and I&I market before COVID-19 hit North America were increased online purchasing of cleaning products; a preference for reusable cleaning products as opposed to single-use items; and “chemophobia” or prioritization of products that make claims of being green, natural, safe, and nontoxic, the blog post says. However, COVID-19 brought a shift in consumer behavior and “none of those trends carried forward as expected,” it says.

Online purchases of cleaning products saw an unprecedented increase in North America after the COVID-19 outbreak, as “households sheltered in place and feared venturing out to make purchases,” BASF says. The increase was also a result of high rates of participation in online shopping by demographic groups that would have avoided it previously, the report says. The widespread and rapid adoption of e-commerce, which is becoming a comfortable habit for many, is expected to have a lasting impact on consumer behavior, it says.

The pandemic seems to have reversed the trend of prioritizing reusable cleaning products, with sales of cleaning wipes more than doubling from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the first quarter of 2020, according to the report. According to US retail data for the first half of 2020, cited in the report, “demand for certain areas, including automatic dishwashing tablets and household cleaners remained extraordinarily strong in [the second quarter] even after initial stockpiles.” This is mainly due to the pandemic leading to an ongoing prioritization of regular cleaning at home, which is likely to be sustained through the duration of the pandemic, and potentially beyond, BASF says.

Traditional over sustainable

BASF notes that the shift is even more visible in the “chemophobia” trend, with a dramatic reversal away from green and natural cleaning products toward more traditional ones. Daniele Piergentili, vice president/home and personal care, North America at BASF tells CW this is because “in the COVID[-19] era, cleaning has a renewed emphasis on disinfection and efficacy. Traditional products tend to have clearer disinfection and cleaning claims and are therefore preferred to those that focus on sustainability claims only.”

There is an underlying belief among consumers that sustainable cleaners are less effective, and that “harsh” ingredients are needed for deep cleaning and disinfection, BASF says. “Many early sustainable products reinforced that perception by making performance compromises for the sake of using only renewable and safe ingredients,” says Piergentili. “Sustainable ingredients aren’t inherently less effective at cleaning, but limiting a formulator to certain classes of ingredients makes designing affordable, high-performing formulas more challenging.”

BASF expects the reversal away from sustainable products “may be mitigated somewhat as the virus comes under control.” The report notes that the overall global shift toward sustainability and environmental awareness will also support this shift in the long term. Nevertheless, the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumers is expected to be long lasting, meaning that efficacy will remain a high priority in the long run, the report says.

Efficacy and sustainability will be of equal importance, and companies in the I&I space are already emphasizing, as a marketing tactic, that their sustainable cleaning products elevate cleaning standards as well, BASF says. Moving forward, home-care and I&I brand leaders will pursue “science-based green” as the market refuses to concede efficacy but still wants to move toward sustainability, the report says.

As a result, the new challenge for the cleaning industry is “a natural cleaning product that actually works,” BASF says. Science-based green product offerings may help the top cleaning brands rise above the competition, since “strong brand recognition will help mitigate uncertainty over efficacy, while consumers will appreciate the evolution toward sustainability,” the report says.

Companies are in a better position now to combine efficacy and sustainability in their products “as the toolbox of certified safe ingredients has increased [for example through EPA’s Safer Choice Program],” says Piergentili. “In recent years we’ve already seen several new products featuring sustainability benefits and performance equivalent to the leading traditional brands. We expect this trend to continue and we’ll see sustainable products continue to close the performance gap.” These new products will gradually shift the perceptions of consumers, he adds.

“Protect and simplify”

A further issue that the home-care and I&I cleaning industry must address, now and in the long term, is making sure it will meet the demand for cleaning products with ingredients that consumers view as powerful and effective against viral threats, the report says. To do this, the industry must take steps to avoid supply and distribution issues, especially as consumers make the inevitable switch to online shopping, BASF notes.

At the same time, consumers’ perception of what constitutes adequate cleaning and safety measures has changed and the I&I industry must act to stay ahead of their expectations, informing the entire chain—from employees to partners to consumers—about the steps they’re taking to make spaces as clean and safe as possible, the report says. This may include embracing automation and digitalization to monitor cleaning, it says.

The pandemic has also created an unstable economic environment, so economic uncertainty must also be considered by the cleaning industry as a factor that affects consumer behavior, BASF says. Delivering cleaning efficacy in a way that is still “wallet friendly” should be the way forward, even if it would be reasonable to expect that consumers prioritize threat-associated expenditures over other expenses, it says.

Most of all, the cleaning industry should make it easier for consumers to make the right choice. “Even before COVID-19, choosing a cleaner at the shelf could be a confusing experience with the wide variety of products and claims. Cleaner shortages and inconsistent public information on COVID-19 safety have made decision making even harder,” Piergentili says.

It is encouraging that many consumers are willing to research products at home or on their mobile phones before they shop, since online platforms are an effective tool for customer education on specific disinfection claims and the intended uses of a company’s products, Piergentili says. However, “clear and obvious safety warnings on product packaging are also important to help consumers avoid using a product in unsafe ways,” he adds.

Piergentili notes that “consumers are looking for protection and simplification during this pandemic.” Protection from contact with potential pathogens and simplification of essential activities such as shopping, he says. “After COVID-19 is gone, consumers will continue to prefer products with scientifically proven claims, and trust brands that over the last decades have consistently proven to deliver the safe outcomes promised,” according to Piergentili.

Distinguishing between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting, and sterilizing is important to help consumers choose, but also for producers to achieve the results they want, the report says. It adds that it is crucial for effective disinfection and sanitization to combine quaternary ammonium, hydrogen peroxide, and peracetic acid, the three main active ingredients approved by the US EPA, with the right inert ingredients. It “ultimately boils down to the ingredients,” to produce a cleaning product to satisfy the needs of the consumers, the report says.

So, BASF’s “Protect and Simplify” approach focuses on more efficient ingredients to clean/disinfect, and products that are e-commerce friendly, the company says. It emphasizes BASF’s products “that deliver high performance while enabling sustainability claims such as compaction, reduced ingredient complexity, and certifications, as well as ingredient formats that are e-commerce friendly and can be used for cleaning products sold and shipped online,” Piergentili says.