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More Consumer Friendly Liquid Detergent Labeling Sought

December 19, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Buying liquid laundry detergent can be as frustrating as one of those high school math problems: If a 50-ounce bottle of regular detergent costs $4.99 and a 32-ounce bottle of concentrate costs $3.49 - and both wash the same amount of clothes - which one do you buy?

Even though concentrates are cheaper and better for the environment, some shoppers are still choosing the larger bottles in the mistaken belief that they wash more clothes, say consumer advocates who want the industry and retailers to clear up the confusion.

″It is a packaging and labeling discrepancy,″ said Peggy Meszaros, president of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Concentrated liquid laundry soaps were introduced in 1992 and command 60 percent of the $4 billion liquid and powdered detergent market. Concentrated formulas require one-fourth or four-tenths of a cup per load of laundry. Regular formulas use a half cup per wash.

Meszaros and environmentalists say the ″unit pricing″ system that supermarkets use biases consumers against the concentrated detergents because they think they will pay more for less.

Unit pricing bases a product’s cost on a standard measure, such as ounces, pounds or quarts. The information is listed on store shelves near the product where shoppers can see it.

Meszaros and others say the system works for most goods, but not liquid detergents, which they contend should be priced ″by the washload.″

″The idea is to give consumers the most relevant information,″ said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. ″The labels have to relate to what people want to know.″

Compare that 50-ounce bottle of detergent priced at $4.99 and the 32-ounce bottle of concentrate that costs $3.49. Both will clean 16 loads of laundry.

Under unit pricing based on ounces, the larger bottle costs 10 cents an ounce, the smaller one 11 cents.

By the washload, the 50-ounce bottle costs 31 cents, compared to 22 cents for the 32-ounce size.

″With that kind of confusion, it is not surprising that consumers have purchased things which are not only not as good for the pocketbook, but are not as good for the environment,″ said environmental consultant Henry Cole.

Some state and local governments require unit pricing. Others don’t.

But switching pricing schemes won’t solve anything - yet.

″That’s going to cause more confusion than it’s going to resolve,″ said Ken Butcher, a coordinator for the federal Office of Weights and Measures. For the proposal to work, he said, the industry must first define a ″washload.″

That appears unlikely at this time, since members of the Soap and Detergent Association haven’t raised the issue, a spokeswoman said.

Large supermarket chains such as Kroger, Winn Dixie and A&P use labels based on ounces, but the Safeway Corp. and Giant Foods price by the washload in most of their stores, said Cole, author of a recent report on the cost and environmental benefits of concentrated liquid laundry detergents.

″The consumer will see what deal they’re really getting, which (item) is the best bargain and they won’t be confused,″ he said.

Because the cleaning agents in the concentrated soaps are less diluted, less energy and materials are used to make, package and transport them - reducing costs. Production generates less pollution and waste, and less garbage heads to landfills after the product is used.

But Meszaros fears companies will stop making quarter-cup concentrated soap if sales don’t improve.

Lever Bros. introduced quarter-cup versions of its All, Surf and Wisk brands two years ago, but decided last month to resume sales of its regular formulas. Sales of concentrated liquid Wisk, for one, shrank 14.3 percent last year, according to Brandweek, a marketing industry magazine.

For now, that leaves Church & Dwight Co. Inc., maker of the Arm & Hammer brand, as the sole company selling only the quarter-cup concentrated soaps. Competitors Colgate, Dow and Procter & Gamble make concentrated formulas of their detergents in the four-tenths of a cup size.

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