It used to be that when it came to investing in cleaning services, whether the emphasis was on green cleaning or cleaning for health or sustainability (or all of the above), customers sought out building service contractors that were on the leading eco-friendly edge. It also used to be that frequencies were higher, specs were more robust, and customers were a lot more comfortable paying for janitorial services.

The combination of those factors — as well as the green cultures and trends associated with geographic location — led to a green cleaning heyday. Many BSCs are saying, however, that the popularity of green cleaning programs seems to have leveled off, thanks in great part to the recession.

When Contracting Profits surveyed readers about green cleaning trends in 2009, and asked if they use green cleaning products, 81 percent said they were — a 30 percent increase from the last time readers had been polled in 2006.

In a similar survey from this year, roughly the same amount of respondents, 79 percent, say they use green products, despite predictions two years ago that green product use would continue to grow.  Of those not practicing green cleaning in 2009, 70 percent planned to adopt green cleaning in the future. But these recent survey results indicate that may not have happened.

Why the stagnation?

A lot of BSCs say customers really started to become interested in green cleaning about five years ago. Not only were manufacturers developing full product lines, but many more chemicals were being certified as green or eco-friendly by third-party entities. Add to that a push in both public and private settings for better indoor air quality and environmentally friendly cleaning, as well as a consumer awakening to green cleaning products, and contractors had a hot topic on their hands.

But when the recession hit a few years ago, priorities for many customers shifted.

“There’s been less conversation about it recently, I think,” says Mark Wild, president of Peterson Cleaning Inc. in Rockford, Ill. “What we’re hearing and seeing recently is much more cost-focused. And I think people are willing to take less service for a lower price. They’re willing to do a lot of different things just to try to get the cost down and manage their business and we’re seeing less of an emphasis on it.”

That doesn’t mean Wild’s company isn’t still attempting to sell it to customers, and that there aren’t customers who are interested in green — because there certainly are.  But the focus isn’t there the way it used to be for a lot of clients, he says.

“Everybody’s very worried about the health of their business, so they’re a little less concerned about (green) right now,” Wild says.

A large minority of survey respondents — 39 percent — say that fewer customers are requesting the use of green products since last year. Another 32 percent responded that there’d been no change.

So what could explain the leveling off of demand for green cleaning, when other areas of green and sustainability seem to be doing well? Eco-friendly automobiles, energy sources such as residential solar panels, green homes, organic clothing and recycled furniture are increasingly popular with consumers. Products from tech gadgets to golf balls are made of recycled materials these days.

People are choosing to consume in not just an eco-sensitive way, but in a decidedly demonstrative way; the term “conspicuous conservation,” coined by economists, describes consumers’ desire for social status or recognition that is gained by making green choices.

The use of green cleaning products is not very conspicuous for most commercial cleaning customers. Simply put, it’s just not front-and-center on their radar.

“People are trying to keep their businesses, focusing on how they can still be profitable in the toughest of times,” says Joe Peluso, owner of United Cleaning in Burlington, Mass. “and it’s not by spending more money on products and services.”

Also, with the proliferation of janitorial companies that are underbidding jobs and continuing to drive prices down, it’s getting harder to convince customers that they can work with BSCs to come up with green solutions that won’t cost a lot, says Ron Schulz, president of Metro Cleaning Co., Inc., in Glendale, Ariz.

“I hate to say it but there’re wormy cleaning companies out there. They cut it so cheap, I’m amazed how cheap they can do it,” Schulz says. “Now the building owners are wanting to save money and I can totally appreciate it but they’re going with the super cheap cleaning companies and now they’re getting dirty buildings again and they’re not going green and everything’s going to the wayside.”


Challenging the green expense myth

For years, many in the contract cleaning industry have considered green cleaning a win-win: they can deliver what 
customers want while enjoying the ability to market their cleaning programs, making them more attractive customers who are attentive to sustainability. One-fourth of survey respondents said that customers will pay more for green cleaning, which is encouraging.

However, customers and BSCs both need to be educated about why green cleaning isn’t cost-prohibitive — because the perception that green cleaning is more expensive prevails.

And in an environment where price pressure is worse than ever, some BSCs aren’t promoting green cleaning like they used to, especially if the chemicals are more expensive than traditional ones.

Customers aren’t requesting green cleaning from Peluso as much as they’re requesting the lowest price possible. Since his green cleaning programs cost a bit more, most customers are no longer biting — and Peluso is doing what he can do to stay in business.

“If they say just come and clean and we want the lowest price possible, I just use my basic cleaning supplies and I look for the stuff that’s the best value, what can I get in volume that’s going to do a great job, get the job done, help us so we can get it done as quick as possible,” he says. “I’m not really concerned if it’s green, I just want to get the product that’s the best cost per gallon if I do a dilution.”

Some people look at the chemicals themselves and have a perception that they are more expensive, says Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications for the Healthy Schools Campaign, which advocates policies and practices that contribute to a healthy school environment, including green cleaning in schools legislation.

But chemicals are only 3-5 percent of a budget, Bishop says; equipment and especially labor are going to make up a majority of the budget.

“You have to look beyond just the price of the product and look at the price of implementing the product. You have to look at your labor costs, your costs of training, and when you start taking this broad perspective — the distributors, the contractors as well as the building operators that I have worked with, have constantly reported back to me that ultimately you’re going to be saving,” Bishop says. “It’s about not only the environment but also about the green of saving dollars.”

Schulz agrees, saying green cleaning is not more expensive and that it can, in fact, save everyone time and money.

“For example, now that we have a square scrubber — and I had to buy a machine anyway — now we’re eliminating the stripper, so I just saved money there,” Schulz says.

Green still popular

While many BSCs report that demand for green isn’t what it used to be, it is still a very popular service offering.

Seventy-four percent of respondents to the Contracting Profits survey use both microfiber and green glass cleaners; 73 percent use green multi-purpose cleaners; 68 percent use green restroom cleaners and 50 percent use green carpet care chemicals. Ninety-four percent use green-certified chemicals, including glass cleaner, restroom cleaner, multi-surface cleaners, vacuums and paper products.

Simon Rocha, president of Priority Building Services in Brea, Calif., says his customers continue to prioritize sustainability and green practices.

“All the people that we deal with, they’re very excited and very committed to it,” Rocha says. “The thing is, it does help us also in the qualification process in new buildings and new facilities, that gives us the upper hand in terms of selection of our company to service their needs. And we try to educate as many people as we can with bidding in terms of showing them the process and the programs.”

Priority Building Services was recently certified ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard-Green Buildings, which was a natural next step for the company after years of adding to its green cleaning expertise.

“We deal with a lot of corporate headquarters so a lot of our corporate initiatives were to move toward green cleaning products throughout their facilities, starting with paper products to cleaning products to systems that are going to be a more sustainable cleaning environment and safe environment to work with,” Rocha says.

Rocha also has customers who are working on becoming LEED-certified, and is helping them work toward fulfilling the points achievable through green cleaning.

“We’re trying to help them on our end, products systems, everything we can provide, we’ve worked with a couple headquarter buildings, but it takes a while because it requires a lot of changes on their part,” Rocha says. “And for us, it’s a lot easier because we’re almost there. Our systems, our products we use in all our buildings are Green Seal certified and we use microfiber throughout all of our buildings.”

Green will likely continue to dominate certain market segments for cleaning, such as schools and governmental facilities, thanks in great part to legislation that was crafted and aided by the Healthy Schools Campaign. Seven states have passed mandates regarding green cleaning in schools, starting with New York in 2005, while others have issued recommendations. However, it has been a few years since there has been much legislative activity.

“There are a lot of advocates across the country who have been working to introduce legislation; however, it seems the appetite for legislation right now has waned a little and there’s a lot more work going on right now at the individual school level rather than at the legislative mandate level. But I haven’t seen a decrease, at the building level, of interest,” he says.

What these survey results tell Bishop is that a better job of getting out the word about green cleaning needs to be done, because those working with green cleaning on the facility level are still very excited about it.

“The message that I’m hearing quite clearly is that green cleaning is not necessarily about the environment first,” Bishop says. “For a lot of building operators it’s about saving money and saving resources first.”

The message the Healthy Schools Campaign has heard is that green cleaning allows service providers to more efficiently use staff and to do a better job with existing resources.

“In a budgetary environment where everybody’s budgets are being cut, it’s not just a responsible thing to do, it’s really the only way to maintain really high quality program without losing capacity,” he says.

BSCs continue to educate themselves about the ever-growing world of eco-friendly and sustainable products and equipment. Certifications such as CIMS-GB and Green Seal’s GS-42, and accreditations available through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, are becoming more common as contractors strive to sharpen their competitive edge in service delivery.

Many reasons are cited for using green cleaning products: reducing the toxicity janitors and building occupants are exposed to, passion for sustainability and the environment, and to comply with the requirements of customers. Whatever the reason, many BSCs have made the switch and haven’t looked back.

“In most cases we’re not even being asked — we’re using green products anyway because they’re better for the environment and they’re less costly to our employees, from a health perspective,” says Wild.

The recovery from the recession is likely to be slow and long, and worries about a possible double-dip recession plague businesses and consumers alike. But green cleaning programs can save customers money, Bishop says, so being proactive about selling it works to a BSC’s benefit.

“In a budgetary environment where everybody’s budgets are being cut, green cleaning’s not just a responsible thing to do, it’s really the only way to maintain really high quality program without losing capacity,” Bishop says.