Cold-Water Detergents Get a Cold Shoulder

By Andrew Martin and Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times

A researcher for Procter & Gamble, Jack English, with fabric test samples. P. &. G makes Tide Coldwater, a category leader. Image source: New York Times

Newly formulated laundry detergents can wash most clothes perfectly well in cold water, manufacturers say, but customers are stubbornly refusing to turn down the temperature. Although some of these detergents have been available for several years, customers cling to mom’s age-old advice that hot water washes best — squandering energy and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Even in Germany, where consumers tend to be more environmentally attuned than in the United States, manufacturers have discovered that cold-water washing is such a hard sell that they have relegated claims about it — and the attendant green benefits — to the fine print, choosing to emphasize other attributes.

“For selling, it is much more effective to focus on stain removal and whiteness, performance and price,” said Dr. Thomas Mueller-Kirschbaum, a senior vice president for research and development at Henkel, the German company that markets cold-water formulas under the Persil and Purex brands. “In market research, when you ask consumers, they currently don’t see the immediate benefit of saving energy.”

Of course, some consumers have long preferred to wash their clothes in cold water to prevent them from shrinking or the colors from fading, and many others wash darks or delicate clothes on the cold cycle.

But the idea of reformulating detergent so that all types of clothes can be washed in cold water is relatively new, at least in North America and Europe. (In Japan, consumers routinely do their laundry in cold water.)

About three-quarters of the energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions from washing a load of laundry come from heating the water — a practice that, scientists say, is often wasteful and unnecessary.

Procter & Gamble, the consumer products giant that makes brands like Crest and Gillette in addition to Tide, takes credit for the innovation in North America, which emerged from an evaluation of the company’s energy footprint in 2003.

After realizing how much energy was used to heat water for laundry, Procter set a goal to convert 70 percent of all washing-machine loads to cold water by 2020; by Procter’s estimate currently 38 percent of laundry loads globally were done in cold water.

But in trying to create Tide Coldwater, Procter’s scientists were confronted with a problem: hot water does help get clothes cleaner. In fact, thermal energy is one of three secrets to cleaning clothes, along with mechanical energy and chemicals.

“When you reduce one, you have to do better in the others,” said James Danzinger, a senior scientist who works on detergents for Procter & Gamble.

So the company set its scientists loose to find new chemicals to compensate, and what they came up with was a detergent, Tide Coldwater, with different enzymes and surfactants that work better in cold water.

Tide Coldwater was introduced in 2005. Several competitors followed with their own cold-water formulas, including Purex from Henkel, Wisk from Sun Products and Biokleen from a small company by the same name.

Do cold-water detergents work? Consumer Reports ranked Tide Coldwater among its top detergents last year, though some of its competitors did not rate as high.

The chemical composition of the new cold-water detergents, which cost about the same as regular detergents, is “totally different” from what was found in detergents a decade ago, said Dr. Mueller-Kirschbaum of Henkel. Some even contain chemicals that coat fabric fibers so that they are less likely to absorb dirt in the interval before the next washing.

Tide Coldwater, by far the best-selling cold-water detergent, now accounts for $150 million in sales in the United States and $60 million in Canada, the company says. By comparison, regular Tide has well more than $1 billion a year in sales in the United States alone.

Kiem Ho, director of laundry care for Henkel, predicted that cold-water detergents would remain a niche, unless the government provided incentives to use them or the industry waged a major campaign.

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.

In Germany, a country dotted with wind turbines, solar panels and a Green Party that is part of the political mainstream, detergent makers waged an advertising war several years ago after they created detergents that worked equally well in all temperatures, including cold water.

On television and in magazines, on detergent boxes and bottles, they promoted the environmental benefits of the new cold-water products.

But the detergents languished on the shelves.

“I’ve never even tried it,” said Ottilie Theis, 53, who was shopping for detergent recently in Philippsburg, a city in southwestern Germany. “I’m just skeptical that normal dirt and spots can be washed out with cooler water.”

Dr. Mueller-Kirschbaum said he believed that consumer education, not advertising, would eventually change buying behavior. The average washing temperature is only slowly coming down in Germany, by about a degree a year, market research shows.

At a Target store in suburban New Jersey, Lara Snyder said she wanted to be part of the cold-water revolution and had bought Tide Coldwater. But so far, she said, she’s not ready to switch over entirely.

“I find that sometimes I wash it in cold,” Ms. Snyder said, “and have to wash it again in warm water.”

Despite the challenges, Procter & Gamble officials remain undeterred.

New advertising is promoting the virtues of Tide Coldwater, and the company is working with washing machine manufacturers to improve cold-water cycles in high-efficiency machines.

In September, for instance, Whirlpool’s Maytag brand is introducing the Bravos XL, in which the cold cycle has been designed to work with cold-water detergents.

Procter officials said they were encouraged by company surveys that showed more consumers were washing in cold water. When Tide Coldwater was introduced in 2005, just 30 percent of laundry loads were washed in cold water; now, it’s pushing 40 percent.

“We have people moving from warm to cold,” said Dawn French, the company’s director of North America laundry products research and formula design. “But hot-water loads have remained very steady.”

Currently, about 7 percent of white laundry loads are done in cold water, compared with 22 percent for lights and 57 percent for darks, according to company studies.

“If we can chip away, load by load, we can get to 70 percent,” Ms. French said.

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