Laundry's Dirty Secret: The Overdose Dilemma


Photo: Method
Guest contributor Adam Lowry is the founder of Method.

I blog here about design as intention, which is to say that if you broaden your design intention to include social and environmental factors, your designs can become transformational. Examining typical laundry packaging from this design perspective provides interesting insight. If you ask what is the intention of the design of a typical laundry package, the answer is clear: Big detergent jugs are designed to get us to use more. They are a symbol of bigger-is-better wastefulness. The laundry jug is the SUV of consumer products--it's antiquated, wasteful, and costly, but supremely profitable for its makers.In last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Ellen Byron wrote an article called "The Great American Soap Overdose," in which she examined America's addiction to using too much laundry detergent and the various reactions of the "we're on your side" laundry detergent manufacturers.

The piece examines why dosing of laundry detergent is so confusing; why the fill lines are hard to read, and why the caps are oversized. Detergent manufacturers are quick to point out that they, too, are against overdosing and its' negative effects, and that they are constantly looking for ways to curb it.

I'm not buying it.

This rhetoric is symbolic of a greater ideological battle in sustainable business today. It is a fight between those that want to appear green as they protect the ignorance-is-bliss status quo that serves their business interest, and those that are truly willing to put their money where their mouth is and innovate better, greener solutions that help people live more sustainably.

You might ask, why is this important? Isn't it just laundry detergent? When you consider that 1,100 loads of laundry are started every second in America, that means over 500 million pounds of laundry detergent go down the drain and into our waterways every year.

The main arguments that detergent manufacturers give for why dosing is so confusing are that they haven't yet found a way to make it clearer, and that consumers want control. According to the article, large manufacturers don't want to boost sales by confusing consumers, because they don't want their customers disappointed in how the product makes their clothes look and washing machines wear.

These arguments warrant a critical eye.

If detergent manufacturers were really that concerned about the negative effects of using too much, then why wouldn't they limit the size of the cap to the amount you need for a heavy load? That's what Method did when we launched our 3x laundry detergent in 2004. Furthermore, given the huge volume of laundry detergent sold every year, "right-sizing" the cap would save manufacturers millions in plastic cost and create an enormous sustainability benefit. But they don't. Still today, the volume of the cap is often more than double what you need, and the 'natural' brands are as guilty as all the rest.

The reason for this is simple math. Method recently conducted a study that uncovered that 53% of consumers "eyeball it" or use a full cap, which is about double the recommended dose. This is the dirty little secret of the laundry business, and every manufacturer knows it. If half of consumers use double what they need, then 33% of all laundry detergent purchased in America is unnecessary waste. Millions of pounds of it.

Now consider that $3 billion of laundry detergent is sold each year in America. If a third of that is pure waste, one could assume that detergent manufacturers make $1 billion a year on consumers overusing laundry detergent. It's clearly not that the technology to make caps less wasteful and easier to use has eluded detergent manufacturers all these years. They have a billion little reasons not to find a solution.

Some say that packaging must be as it is because the consumer is boss, and she wants control. This is true. But how is the solution a cavernous cap that makes you feel like you are using too little even when you fill the recommended amount? Contrast that with the pump-dosing laundry detergent we at Method just launched. It still gives the consumer control, but drastically reduces both the incidence and magnitude of overdosing. If you want to use a little more, that's up to you, but an extra squirt is 16% more, not double. And it turns a cumbersome, messy, two-handed process into a simple, one-handed squirt.

Now I will admit, I am an interested party. I started a company that sells laundry detergent. But my point here is not to sell product, it is to show that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of America, and that there is a better way. In fact, I'm asking people to use less of my product. Doing so will clean your clothes better and save you money. I've even gone so far as to design a dispenser that makes it nearly impossible to use double what you need. I do that because I believe if you keep the interests of people in mind, business will follow. This is an ethos that is lacking in far too many so-called "sustainable" businesses.

Design has the power to change our world for the better. But only if we use it for good.

More on Green Laundry and Detergents
Green Laundry: Getting Techie
No Impact Man: Sneak Peek: Laundry Time
Laundry Liquid Soap: How to Get the Last Drop Out

Tags: Cleaning | Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Detergents | Laundry | Waste