While BSCs are switching to certified versions of commonly used green products, use of green-certified specialty products scored far lower on a recent Contracting Profits survey. One-third of respondents claimed to use green-certified floor finish and stripper, 36 percent are using green-certified soap and hand sanitizer and a mere 14 percent are using green-certified carpet extractors.

Chris Norgren, president and COO of Marsden Bldg Maintenance in St. Paul, Minn., agrees with the results. Specialty services such as concrete stripping or graffiti removal need to be done quickly. The question for Norgren becomes: can green products do the job as effectively as traditional products or will they require more time and labor?

“It’s an economic battle,” he says.

When it comes to green-certified specialty cleaners that are used only occasionally, “the jury is out on demand,” says Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a green consulting firm based in Bloomington, Ind. “Even LEED doesn’t require a building to use 100 percent green products.”

Ashkin notes that specialty products such as furniture polishes, metal polishes and graffiti remover are taking a bit more time to become standard in the industry.

“There are a few reasons for that,” says Ashkin. “One is there were no third-party standards for those categories until recently.”

The new Green Seal GS-53 for Specialty Cleaning Products for Industrial and Institutional Use launched in August of this year. The standard covers products including dish soaps, graffiti removers, automotive cleansers, outdoor cleaners, odor removers and polishes and waxes, among others.
A second reason is the time and expense it takes for manufacturers to develop specialty products. Since these cleaners aren’t used every day, sales volumes are relatively low.

“High-volume products are the first to be certified green,” says Ashkin. “Companies that specialize in specialty products will be the early adopters in greening those categories, but they’ll have to bear the cost of developing, testing and certifying them.”

The cost of certification further raises the cost of specialty products, and has to be amortized over a smaller volume of sales.

The development lifecycle of some specialty products can be extensive because long-term performance needs to be observed. With floor finish, for example, manufacturers need to see how it wears over time and measure how much labor it takes to maintain it adequately. If a floor finish has to be stripped and reapplied frequently, it has a negative impact on both the environmental and labor.

The good news, says Ashkin, is that some manufacturers have been working on this issue for some time and more effective, certified options will eventually be released.

GCA Services Group, based in Cleveland, is proactive when it comes to green-certified products even if client demand has yet to catch up with technology. For example, the company has been using a green-certified ice melt for the past two winters, compared to just 8 percent of BSCs surveyed.

Maintaining green in a down economy

BSCs all over the country are finding that the struggling economy sometimes makes it hard to keep green-certified products a priority.

Organizations want to be green but are really being sensitive to cost implications, says Ashkin.

“Cleaning has become a commodity,” he says. “Building owners will change vendors for a penny a square foot.”

When the cost of green-certified products is the same as traditional products, it’s a simple decision, Ashkin explains, but if it’s a premium because of where the product is in the development cycle, contractors have to weigh the long-term benefits of using green-certified product.

“The economic crisis has been really tough on BSCs,” says Norgren. “It’s a low-margin business anyway. Our focus on driving down labor and other costs to meet the needs of customer base has been critical to our growth over the last couple of years.”

Building owners are facing growing vacancy rates and shrinking dollar-per-square-foot lease rates, Norgren says. While maintaining a healthy environment is still important to building owners, cost is becoming a bigger priority. Norgren frequently has customers who appreciate the green service, but also need to save money. He is continually looking for ways that green products and innovations can save money while enhancing the process.

Jason Lee, director of sustainability and business development for GCA, encourages customers to look at the cost throughout the entire lifecycle of a product.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a cleaning solution or hand soap, it’s important to look at cost per use instead of the cost up front,” he says.

Maureen Badding is a freelancer based in Milwaukee, Wis.

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