When you look at the cleaning aisle in a grocery store or big box, you’ll see all kinds of products that clean only one thing. Some of them have harmful ingredients. And nearly everything comes in plastic. Reasons enough to think of homemade cleaners.
Not everyone who has tried the DIY route has stuck with it, however. Some question how much value they get for the effort. For people who want green cleaning products and don’t want to make them at home, what options are available?
The rise of commercial cleaning products
All those commercial products started to become popular after the Second World War. Advertising made housewives distrust the simple products they had used for generations.
I vividly remember one commercial for Windex. It showed a woman mixing ammonia and water and wrinkling her nose at the stench. Then she had to carry the bucket to the windows, sloshing the ammonia water out of it with every step. With Windex, all she had to do was spray and wipe. Much easier and much more convenient.
The public knew or cared nothing about volatile organic compounds or toxic chemicals in cleaning products. No one thought at the time of the environmental implications of the plastic bottles or all those paper towels most people used, either. That commercial probably aired in the 1950s or 60s. It was certainly before the first Earth Day in 1970.
But you know how companies always tinker with their formulas. Years after the last time I saw that commercial (but I think still before Earth Day), I had to laugh when I saw a new Windex label. It proclaimed, “now with ammonia”!
Besides the plastic and the chemicals, so many of these products only do one thing. You need one detergent for laundry, another for washing dishes by hand, and another for washing them in the dishwasher.
Windex cleans windows and mirrors. You need something else for counters, something else for floors, etc. All those specialized cleaning products add up to a lot of clutter.
Rising demand for green cleaning products
In recent decades, people have started to care more about environmental issues. They don’t want all the chemicals and plastic waste associated with the commercial products. More and more people want green cleaning products instead.
More and more people have started to investigate the more natural cleaning products my grandmothers used for years and then eagerly avoided. Some of them can do some cleaning just fine by themselves. Most often, though, it’s necessary to combine them.
- white, distilled vinegar
- baking soda (or washing soda)
- castile soap
- hydrogen peroxide
- lemon juice
- olive oil (or vegetable oil)
- essential oils (to make the homemade cleaners smell good without dangerous VOCs)
Here are 25 recipes for homemade cleaners if you want to follow up. I haven’t tried them.
What if you don’t want to bother with homemade cleaners?
Some people who used to make their own homemade cleaners have stopped. For one thing, it takes too much time. For another, all the different tools need to mix the various ingredients can clutter a cabinet almost as much as the variety of commercial stuff.
Deciding not to make homemade cleaners doesn’t mean you have to go back to products with questionable ingredients. Some companies sell more natural, eco-friendly products.
I am familiar with two brands. If Seventh Generation makes something I need, that’s the brand I usually get.
I also admire Clorox. Its signature product, chlorine bleach is unhealthy. Other companies that make dangerous products have fought their critics and issued all kinds of misleading research to portray their products as safe. Think of the tobacco industry.
Clorox, on the other hand, decided to issue its own line of cleaning products, Green Works. They don’t contain any bleach. They worked well enough for me, but they couldn’t compete. You can’t find Green Works in stores anymore. Clorox could have decided to get out of the green products business entirely. Instead, it decided to sell them online through Amazon.
I need to give two warnings about commercial green cleaning products:
First, just because something is labeled “natural,” “green,” or “plant-based” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. Beware of greenwashing.
Second, don’t expect fully sustainable products just yet.
Jeffrey Hollender founded Seventh Generation with the intention of embedding sustainability in a corporation that made and sold green cleaning products. After 23 years, the board of directors decided he was out of step with their vision for the company and fired him. Was it because he pushed too hard for sustainability and failed to make enough profit? No. He got fired in part because he had “failed to create a truly sustainable brand.” Later, in an important speech, he admitted,
Seventh Generation was never a sustainable brand, not even close. I struggle to find any truly sustainable brand, though I continue to look. The problem is that we’ve confused less bad with good. The fact that we make chlorine free paper towels with 100% post consumer waste doesn’t make the product good- it’s just less bad….
That said, however, we as consumers have to be content with being less bad for the foreseeable future. And we have to reject the absurd notion that, somehow, we can live on this planet and have no impact on it. We have been looking for less bad for at least the past fifty years. If anything will ever be fully sustainable, we’ll only get there incrementally.
Homemade cleaning products may be one way to get there. But not the only way.