For many years, green cleaning was considered to be a fringe activity, done for political or marketing purposes. But, as more customers understand the benefits of cleaning to improve health with an eye toward the indoor and outdoor environments, green cleaning is becoming mainstream.

Indeed, some customers are demanding their building service contractors use environmentally preferable products and procedures. But, until recently, the terms “green” and “environmentally preferable” were ill-defined at best — there were no legally binding definitions of these words, and just about any manufacturer could call its products “green” if they wanted.

Although “green” still isn’t a legally defined term, several organizations have stepped in to fill that information void with standards of their own. Some, such as Green Seal and the U.S. Green Building Council, cover the products and procedures themselves with extensive testing, leading to certification; others, such as the Soap and Detergent Association, offer their members less stringent guidelines to follow when producing and marketing their products.

Although none of these standards carry the force of law, many manufacturers and buyers alike want validation from a reputable third party that these are indeed green products, and not just marketing claims, says Arthur Weissman, president and CEO of Green Seal, a Washington-based organization offering environmental certification for cleaning products.

Proactive BSCs can offer certified products to their customers, but some clients are starting to require them, Weissman says. So, contractors should familiarize themselves with some of the more common certifying bodies and associations.

The Green Seal of approval
“We have 15 years as a non-profit ‘eco-labeling’ organization,” says Weissman. “In recent years, our focus has been on building maintenance and janitorial products. We started that back in 1999, when we developed a consensus standard for the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.”

The GS-37 standard was born from that project in 2000, and a number of states and municipalities began adopting the guideline for their own contractors and direct purchasing. Eventually, says Weissman, it became the de facto environmental standard for cleaning products. (See sidebar for specifics.)

Another factor adding legitimacy to GS-37 and other Green Seal Standards is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB), a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The LEED-EB Rating System was built around existing nationally recognized standards in the marketplace, explains Steve Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ind., and the green-cleaning expert on the LEED-EB committee. So, USGBC adopted Green Seal’s standards for general purpose, glass, washroom and carpet-care chemicals.

“The US Green Building Council has no financial stake in Green Seal, but recognized that this standard has been widely adopted by the cleaning industry with over 30 manufacturers offering products which have been certified to meet the standard,” Ashkin explains. “Thus, utilizing the Green Seal standard made it easy for the buildings to identify the appropriate products, as well as for the product manufacturers who now have a single standard.”

In cases where GS-37 is not applicable — such as carpet cleaners, floor finishes or strippers — products that comply with the California Code of Regulations for maximum allowable volatile organic compound levels are required, Ashkin adds.

Following the LEED
Contractors who clean LEED-EB buildings will need to use Green Seal or California Code-compliant products, or they risk their customers’ certification, Ashkin says.

Right now, LEED-EB isn’t a concern for many BSCs, because there aren’t many certified buildings. However, USGBC president Tom Hicks says that’s changing.

“At the present time there are 15 facilities representing 8.4 million square feet of floor space that are LEED-EB certified,” says Hicks. “There are 64 buildings totaling nearly 20 million square feet that have registered their building as part of either the LEED-EB Pilot program or the balloted version of the LEED-EB rating system. If, as the USGBC projects, LEED-EB follows the same adoption rate as LEED for New Construction, then cleaning contractors will start having more and more customers in the LEED program. Thus, while they may not have many customers asking for it today, cleaning contractors may want to prepare for the demand that we believe will continue to accelerate into the future.”

Still Green Seal certification is entirely voluntary, stresses Weissman. As such, products that don’t go through the certification process might still be safe and effective (although they may not be usable in LEED buildings).

Unless the customer is a LEED facility or otherwise demands Green Seal products be used, it’s up to the market and to the buyers whether to use certified or non-certified products, Weissman adds.

Other customers who might demand Green Seal products include government buildings — states including Massachusetts, Minnesota and Missouri have adopted green-purchasing requirements, says Weissman. Schools and universities also are becoming interested; there is a pilot project in the works between Green Seal and an educational association to get green cleaning into New York schools, he adds.

Sustainable soap
Another green standard with which BSCs should familiarize themselves is the Washington-based Soap and Detergent Association’s (SDA) Principles for Sustainable Development.

“SDA and its members are defining their commitment to sustainability,” says SDA’s vice president Brian Sansoni. “As an association representing the manufacturers of cleaning products, we wanted to specifically spell out that this is what we believe in.”

SDA’s Principles are not specific rules or standards; they’re voluntary operating guidelines for the association’s member companies, who manufacture cleaning chemicals and raw ingredients.

“We’re not asking members to sign a paper saying they’re sustainable; there’s no blood oath,” he explains. “We’re also not trying to replicate existing programs; our members may already be certified. These principles help further the dialogue.”

Under the Principles, SDA members are implored to only market products that have been shown to be safe for humans and the environment, through careful consideration of the potential health and environmental effects, exposures and releases that will be associated with their production, transportation, use and disposal. They also should promote transparent communication of safety and handling information across the supply chain, and support basic research to resolve uncertainties around human and environmental safety when they arise.

The principles go a step beyond health and environment, though, and include economic- and social-sustainability factors.

Regardless of where the standards come from, Sansoni is pleased that buyers and sellers of green products are beginning to see “green” and “sustainable” as not only marketing terms, but as more concretely defined and proven concepts.

“As regulators and policy makers get caught up on green cleaning discussions, we always want to make sure these policies are science-based, and not political,” Sansoni says. “It’s a popular marketing tool, but we want people to understand that ‘sustainable’ isn’t anything new. But the term can get hijacked politically.”

Focus On: Green Seal Certification
Green Seal’s GS-37 standard applies to institutional and industrial cleaners (there also is a standard for floor products, GS-40). To meet certification requirements, manufacturers must prove that:

• Each product as used when diluted with water from the cold tap at no more than 50 °F, shall clean common soils and surfaces in its category effectively, as measured by a standard test method.

• The undiluted product shall not be toxic to humans, nor shall it contain any ingredients that are carcinogens or that are known to cause reproductive toxicity. It shall not be corrosive to the skin or eyes. It shall not be a skin sensitizer.

• The undiluted product shall not be combustible.

• The product as used shall not contain substances that contribute significantly to the production of photochemical smog, tropospheric ozone, or poor indoor-air quality. The volatile organic content of the product as used shall not exceed 1 percent by weight for general-purpose and bathroom cleaners, or 3 percent by weight for glass cleaners. The product as used shall not contain more than 0.5 percent by weight of total phosphorus. The product may not contain alkylphenol ethoxylates, dibutyl phthalate, heavy metals or ozone-depleting compounds.

• The product as used shall not be toxic to aquatic life, and ingredients should be biodegradable.

• The product must be a concentrate, except for FIFRA-registered bathroom cleaners. The primary package shall be recyclable or manufacturers should provide for returning and refilling the package.

• Fragrances must be identified, and must follow the Code of Practice of the International Fragrance Association.

• The product manufacturer, its distributor, or a third party shall offer training or training materials in the proper use of the product. These shall include step-by-step instructions for the proper dilution, use, disposal, and the use of equipment. Manufacturers shall have product labeling systems to assist non-English-speaking or illiterate personnel.