People often believe that green products are a niche. There is some truth to this, but more and more businesses are breaking out of the niche and going mainstream. Here's how they're doing it, and what it means for your business.

How Sustainability Goes Mainstream
Although surveys commonly report that a huge majority of consumers will buy eco-friendly products, most will not pay a lot more for them. For most consumers the environment is a secondary factor, and scolding doesn't sell at all.

"The real question is 'How does green equal better?'" says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com and author of Strategies for the Green Economy. "That is, how does making the green choice become a no-brainer, because it's just clearly the better choice. You buy the green car because it's more fun to drive or a better deal. Until it's about that, it's going to be a niche audience."

When eco-friendly products do cost a little more, communicating their added value becomes paramount. "The challenge facing green-product companies going mainstream is how to motivate consumers to shop value and not simply price. The key is to define and present both the product and green value in one marketing message," says David Mleczko, co-founder of Signature Green Marketing.

Eco-friendly Cleaning and Babies
Eco-friendly cleaning products is one sector going mainstream, with Green Works from Chlorox sitting on the grocery store shelf right next to conventional products. Chlorox developed Green Works products to reach a broader market by making sure they clean well at a competitive price. The environmental benefit of natural ingredients such as coconut is the green icing on the cake.

Other eco-friendly cleaning products are also going mainstream, driven in part by health concerns about chemical exposure. Seventh Generation, a pioneer in sustainability, is launching a new line of disinfectant cleaning products using thyme. The direct-sales company Only Green has begun manufacturing its own line of cleaning products to lower their cost and attract a broader customer base.

"Our products are price-competitive and with attractive packaging, making the transition easy," says Crystal Wiltshire, marketing manager for Only Green.

Concerns about chemicals are also driving growth of a market for green baby products, including bottles, food and clothes that sit on store shelves right alongside other products. Shaindy Alexander founded Toronto-based RiNGLEY to produce eco-friendly, chemical-free teething rings. "I think big and buy big," Alexander says. "I buy large quantities of material at a time. This reduces the carbon footprint I am leaving and also reduces my costs."

Changing Consumers
As green products enter the mainstream, the mainstream market changes as well. Consumers are often confused by sustainability, but direct interaction with consumers allows direct-sales businesses such as Green Irene and Zola Goods to dispel this confusion. The founders of Green Irene got the inspiration for their business from challenges in greening their own home, such as finding compact fluorescent light bulbs that work well in addition to saving energy. "We realized we would have gladly paid a green expert to come in and tell us what to do and how to do it," says Rosamaria Stafford, co-founder of Green Irene.

As a descendent of the founder of Woolworth's, Priscilla Woolworth is building on her family name to create a new type of general store at PriscillaWoolworth.com, helping mainstream consumers make the shift to eco-friendly products. "Priscillawoolworth.com offers the opportunity for the growing, mainstream consumer base to shop confidently as they turn to more eco-friendly lifestyles," Woolworth says. "We do the research for them, vetting our general store products, so our customers don't have to figure out for themselves the 'real deal' in green. Hopefully, my iconic family name provides the legacy of trust established by the Woolworth family for generations."

Many consumers today live with renewed frugality, buying products that help them reduce waste and save money--products that just happen to be eco-friendly, too. Jeannie Peakos, president of Bag-E-Wash Co., encountered skepticism when she started her business selling reusable food storage bags, but that has changed. "Now they [customers] are saying, 'Oh my gosh, I wish I would have thought of this,'" Peakos says. "It is amazing what a few years and green going mainstream will do."

A Changing Economy
In the end, nothing could be more mainstream than Walmart, and as Walmart makes big strides toward sustainability, it's taking a big chunk of the economy along with it. Walmart is reducing waste and shrinking its carbon footprint, and it is expecting suppliers to do the same. Walmart's Sustainability Index ranks the environmental performance of the company's suppliers and products, pressuring suppliers to do better. If you're a Walmart supplier--and even if you aren't--big changes like this will force you to look closely at your environmental performance as sustainable business practices become everyday business.