Market share has won out over source reduction in Lever Bros. Co.'s decision to shift its marketing emphasis from its 1-quart ``ultra'' package for concentrated liquid detergent, back to the original half-gallon size that holds diluted detergent. ``No matter how green you are in the marketplace, if your consumer prefers something else, the consumer is the ultimate arbiter,'' said Melinda Sweet, general counsel for and senior vice president of Lever in New York.
Competitors and association officials alike expressed surprise at the decision. One of Lever's competitors noted that consumers remain unaware that the smaller packaging reduces plastics packaging and the amount of detergent needed to clean the same laundry. No competitor contacted by Plastics News indicated a similar marketing shift.
``We're very upset'' with Lever's decision, said Tom Rattray, associate director for environmental quality at Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati. ``We're going to try to get our friends at Lever to reconsider.''
Said Rattray, ``We, as an industry, haven't worked very hard to convince people how important source reduction really is.''
Kathleen Meade, spokeswoman for the National Recycling Coalition, said she did not know whether Lever's action might indicate ``winds of change'' in the source-reduction movement.
``We're going full speed ahead'' regarding NRC's emphasis on the importance of source reduction, Meade said.
If all detergent makers followed Lever's lead, the resulting increase of plastic in the environment would equal 55 million tons and cover the equivalent of more than 2,000 football fields, according to Clean Water Action in Washington and the Recycling Initiative Campaign, which shares office space with the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in Boston.
Both groups drew their conclusions from a report by environmental consultancy Henry S. Cole & Associates in Washington titled ``Super-Clean and Super-Green: The Environmental Case for Concentrated Liquid Laundry Detergents.'' The study was funded in part by detergent manufacturer Arm & Hammer, a division of Church and Dwight Co. Inc. of Princeton, N.J.
Sweet said declining market share for the smaller packages of All, Wisk and Surf brands led Lever to revisit its original plastic container during 1994's second quarter. The smaller package was introduced in 1992. Package directions note that both wash the same amount of laundry. The major difference between the contents of the packages is the addition of water in the larger bottle.
Sweet would not say whether Lever is completely abandoning the smaller bottle, or if the firm simply is shifting its size mix.
``We've always been making the original [bottle]. We were phasing it out of the market,'' Sweet said.
She cited ``some'' decline in market share as the reason for the about-face, but would not give figures.
The return to the original package does not apply to Lever's paper-boxed, powdered-detergent ultra package, which has not seen a decrease in market share, Sweet said.
``There's a loyalty factor'' to the original plastic package, Sweet said, noting that total demand for Lever's liquid detergent rose 10 percent following the decision to de-emphasize the smaller plastic bottle. And in the process, Lever has reduced the amount of plastic needed to make the original bottle.
Several bottle engineers have noted that, considering a number of packaging and marketing variables, an ultra HDPE package uses 15 percent less plastic than the larger bottle.
The Cole report concludes that a number of other savings are made possible by the use of concentrated detergents in smaller packages - among them reduced costs for transportation and reduced plastic content.
``Lever Bros. withdrawing from the field is a step backward for the environment,'' said Henry Cole, president of the Washington consultancy.
P&G pioneered the ultra package concept in 1991, but started and stayed with a far less-ambitious 20 percent detergent quantity reduction, as opposed to Lever's 50 percent cut. P&G announced a month ago its intent to use less recycled plastic, implying an increase in the amount of virgin resin used.
Clorox Co. of Oakland, Calif., said it is testing source-reduced packages of Clorox 2 detergent. The Lever decision will not affect the Clorox testing, which has been under way nine months, the company said.
Eric Antebi, field director for the Recyling Initiative Campaign, called for a halt to what he said is a retreat from environmental packaging.
``The energy, water and solid waste reduction [of ultra pack-ages] is phenomenal when compared to the regular, `bloated' detergents.''