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The Dirty Secret About Cleaning Products

John ReplogleJohn Replogle
John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation, during a #ComeClean Rally in support of AB 708 in Sacramento last week.Photograph by Steve Yeater — AP Images for Seventh Generation

Shoppers perusing the aisles of their local supermarket can now find a food label for almost every health worry or dietary problem, environmental concern or animal-welfare issue.

But when it comes to cleaning products, consumers are blissfully unaware. The most basic information provided in the food business—a list of ingredients—isn’t even a given when it comes to cleaning agents. Even if customers don’t ingest the products, they can have effects on their health—and there’s no federal law requiring the disclosure of what’s in the bottle, whether toxic or not.

“It’s kind of a strange anomaly for our industry,” says John Replogle, president and CEO of environmentally focused household products maker Seventh Generation. “Cosmetics and personal care all have to, but not cleaning products.”

Seventh Generation, which has voluntarily labeled its goods for at least a dozen years, is trying to change that by pushing for AB 708, a bill in California that would require manufacturers to disclose their ingredients. Replogle believes it could be the beginning of a greater national push for legislation.

The labeling of cleaning products has lagged other areas of the packaged goods industry because items like toilet bowl cleaner and laundry detergent are often the kinds of products even the most health-conscious consumer thinks about last.

The typical progression for shoppers goes something like this, Replogle explains: first they become concerned with what they eat (what’s in them), followed by beauty and personal care (what’s on them), and finally cleaning products (what’s around them).

“It’s like food labeling—it was not part of the lexicon a dozen years ago,” Replogle says. “It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen.” He points out that cleaning agents can be far more toxic than any food or cosmetic.

The 28-year-old company has experienced record growth as the tide starts to shift toward “natural” in the cleaning category. Seventh Generation hit $250 million in wholesale sales in 2015, according to Replogle, and expects to grow 10% in 2016. Its sales have doubled over the past five years.

The growing concern from shoppers about ingredients and environmental impact has led to the rise of Seventh Generation competitors like Method and The Honest Company. Even industry behemoths have gotten into the game, such as Clorox (CLX) with its Green Works brand.

Seventh Generation may have an edge with nearly three decades of R&D experience in the environmentally friendly cleaning category. That kind of know-how has helped the company tackle challenges like making clothes clean without optical brighteners, which leave clothes appearing brighter but leave your skin glowing under a blue light.

“That’s going into your bloodstream,” Replogle says. That’s why Seventh Generation says the U.S. military uses its detergent (among others)—its lack of optical brighteners means that you can’t be seen with night-vision goggles, he explains.

The next big mess Seventh Generation wants to clean up is air care. Replogle notes that most people disinfect their air with Lysol, which kills 99% of viruses but contains ingredients like butane and propane. Later this year Seventh Generation will be launching what he says is the first natural disinfecting spray—made from thyme oil.

“Most people don’t realize that they’re polluting their indoor air by using fragrance,” Replogle says. More than 90% of households use home fragrance of some kind—ranging from air fresheners to candles—which he notes contributes to indoor air quality that is two to five times more polluted than outdoor.

Seventh Generation is trying to redefine what clean means. “People have a perception of what clean smells like—like meadow sunshine, like spring forest rain,” Replogle says. “Clean isn’t a masking fragrance. Clean is no fragrance.”