By Stephen Ashkin

Stephen Ashkin is president of
The Ashkin Group, a nationally
renowned consulting firm
helping both contractors and
building owners “green”
the cleaning process.

Green has become a major issue for all industries — and a potentially problematic and confusing one. TerraChoice recently reviewed 1,018 products and found that all but one made claims that were false or that risked being misleading. All but one!

Green claims have become so commonplace that the term “greenwash” has become part of the discussion. This is especially true as our customers become more knowledgeable about green, and being branded a “greenwasher” not only affects credibility in their eyes, but could potentially lead to legal action.

According to Wikipedia, “greenwash” is a blend of green and whitewash, and is used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

Marketing claims are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has issued voluntary guidance on environmental advertising and marketing practices. While the FTC is the rule-maker on this subject, TerraChoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing” can be helpful for contractors developing marketing materials. ISSA can also provide helpful support.

Some examples that contractors may want to consider include:

  • Claim of improved occupant health and productivity. It is not enough to use anecdotal evidence (stories) or general evidence from the cleaning industry that supports your hypothesis. You must have specific scientific evidence to support your claim or it may be considered false or misleading.
  • Claims that products meet or exceed the requirements of Green Seal or similar third-party certifier. Unless products are officially “certified” or you have specific test data to prove that products “meet and exceed” an organization’s requirements, you may be heading for trouble. And be aware that it is not enough to simply take your supplier’s word for it. If you are making the claim, you have to be able to substantiate it, so ask your suppliers for the documentation.
  • A claim of using “only green products” can be made as long as you can document that you are in fact using only green products including chemicals, paper, equipment, liners, mops, carts, dusters, etc. If you use words such as “only,” “always,” “all,” “never,” etc., you have to mean it with no exceptions or the claim may be false or misleading, otherwise consider modifying your claim.
  • Be careful when using logos and mentioning organizations such as U.S. Green Building Council, Green Seal, Environmental Choice, etc. Make sure it is clear if just a single employee is a member, if the company is a corporate member, or if the company holds some specific certification from the organization, or if some or all of the products are certified, otherwise your claim could be misleading.
  • Make it clear when making green claims whether the claim refers to products being used; applies to the service being performed including products, training, procedures, communications and stewardship programs; or is for the company itself including buildings, internal operations, vehicles, etc.

Remember, it doesn’t matter if the problem was intentional or inadvertent. It’s preferable to get it right from the beginning.