Many building service contractors used to have their doubts about green cleaning — and about the green movement in general. But as the business world now knows, green was not a fad; it's here to stay, and has entrenched itself in our vocabulary, thoughts and behaviors.
Within the past few years, there has been no denying the industry trends of creating healthier indoor environments, cleaning as a respected science, using products that are better for the environment and a heightened emphasis on worker safety.
Three years ago, only about half of BSCs surveyed by Contracting Profits used green cleaning products. Now, four out of five building service contractors who responded to a recent survey are using them.
"With business, if you're not changing, you're dying, and the change to go green is a part of all business today, not just the cleaning industry," says Travis Ryan, general manager at Envirotech Building Services in St. Cloud, Minn. "Our customers are being urged by their customers to be green, and that's why we're seeing that jump as well. We're sort of seeing the trickle-down effect."
A small number of environmentally minded BSCs helped start the green cleaning movement by jumping on board five or more years ago, and more BSCs have been spurred to action by customer mandates or legislation as the movement gained steam. Whereas there used to be some industry resistance to transitioning to a green cleaning program — for BSCs, that came in the form of hesitancy to invest in new products — it seems improved green products have proven their legitimacy.
"Janitorial products and equipment over the past few years have changed so much," Dahlia Kelada, director of marketing for Houston-based Metroclean Commercial Building Services. "There are many more green-claimed products on the market, requiring stricter monitoring and regulations, not only for using them but for manufacturing them. Even the standards set by governing bodies have made adjustments along the way. I think if those green-claimed products weren't standardized and regulated, the same hesitation would still be here. It establishes trust for the customer, and even us janitors who directly use them."
Some companies have such a commitment to green cleaning that they have transitioned completely to green programs, leaving most traditional chemicals behind. In fact, the most commonly used green products, according to the survey, are multi-purpose cleaners, restroom cleaners and glass cleaners. Other popular green products include microfiber cloths and mops and recycled paper products.
For Porter Industries, which is the first and only BSC to have attained the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification at their headquarters building in Loveland, Colo., having a green cleaning program is simply the right thing to do, says President/CEO Steve Hendrickson.
"Our cleaning chemicals and practices can make a big difference in the kind of day the building occupant experiences. We can greatly improve our customers' indoor air quality (IAQ) by utilizing healthy cleaning practices; or we can ignore cleaning for health procedures and increase the likelihood that these same customers may experience headaches, allergy or even asthma," Hendrickson says.
A commitment toward green practices has become an important part of many BSCs' core value statements, visions and business strategies.
"If we're selling green we have to be green ourselves, from a corporate point of view and not just on the customer-end," says Kelada. "Although we're only a tenant in a non-LEED certified facility, we still have a stewardship plan in place and make conscious efforts to limit our waste. We're recycling paper, batteries and cartridges; using mugs instead of Styrofoam; creating electronic newsletters instead of paper ones; and using post-consumer paper that's elemental and chlorine free in all our printed materials. You can't just talk the talk — you have to do your part, too."
While some BSCs provide only green cleaning products for most applications, others offer both traditional and green products. Metroclean offers both because it wants customers to have a choice.
"We have many types of customers, each with special needs and different budgets to work with," Kelada says. "So it's to the advantage of both our customers and us to provide a customized program instead of a cookie-cutter one.
Taking the Reigns
As service providers, cleaning contractors have found themselves on the front end of the green cleaning movement. The impetus for many BSCs to switch to green chemicals was to first and foremost protect the health of their employees.
While customer and public awareness of green practices is improving, contractors still have to be proactive in educating and implementing green programs. At this point, supply seems to be outweighing demand, with BSCs reporting that on average, only 25 percent of customers require them to use green products. However, that number is up from 16 percent three years ago and customers are on board with green cleaning when it is pitched to them.
"There has not been a customer that has not been on board with going green," says Ryan. "I think more and more people are buying into the idea that green cleaning first and foremost is cleaning for people's health, but just as important is cleaning for the environment."
Fifty-five percent of BSCs say more customers have been requesting green in the past year. Among types of customers that are requesting the use of green products, single-tenant commercial office buildings lead the way with 54 percent, followed by government buildings at 48 percent and multi-tenant office buildings at 41 percent.
With only one sector cracking 50 percent, and the public sector's regulations regarding green cleaning still not resulting in a majority of those customers asking for green, there is a long way to go before green cleaning becomes prevalent. On top of that, the recession is temporarily affecting demand for green, BSCs say.
Most customers simply want a clean building, and will leave it up to contractors to figure out the best way to attain that, Hendrickson says.
As a result, BSCs have settled into the role of educators when it comes to green cleaning.
"Janitorial companies offering green are also looked at as innovators and educators in the green-cleaning industry," Kelada says. "We are required to be well-versed on what the new products and equipment can do, as well as their efficacy. Our business is more than just cleaning, we really have to know the ins and outs of every product and type of equipment we consider using, especially if we're selling a green service and cleaning for health."
When it comes time to switch to green, customers feel more confident making that decision if they trust their BSC as a green cleaning expert that is knowledgeable in selecting the best products and equipment on the market, Kelada says.
Reasonable costs have no doubt has fueled the popularity of green cleaning products.
The implementation of any new cleaning program will cost money, but many BSCs report cost-neutrality or even cost savings in the long run from using green products, including not only chemicals but vacuums, machines, microfiber and other tools as well.
Property managers in general may be intimidated by green cleaning, as it's a relatively new concept to them, and they assume it will be more expensive, Kelada says. But the keys to introducing green cleaning are communication and negotiation.
"The truth is, we're finding green products to really be cost-neutral," Kelada says. "Some property managers may not be ready to do a complete overhaul of their cleaning program to using green products, chemicals and materials. We can do a little at a time, like switching to a green window cleaner instead of a traditional cleaner, or using motion-censored paper dispensers instead of dispensers that let stacks of towels fall out — baby steps."
As mainstream as it is, green cleaning remains a differentiator in some markets, though that will change soon as green continues to grow and completely saturates the cleaning market.
"When you're doing bids, customers are looking to see that you would offer green cleaning," says Emilie Talady, president of Rembrandt Commercial Cleaning in Waukesha, Wis.
Of those BSCs who do not currently practice green cleaning, 70 percent say they plan to switch to green in the future.
"I think everybody's going to have some sort of green service or product," Kelada says. "They have to, otherwise they're not going to be able to stay in business."
As evidence of that fact, according to the survey, 7 in 10 BSCs think that green cleaning will become the industry standard very soon.
"I believe it's going to continue to grow," Ryan says. "I don't think it will be an optional service. I think it's going to be a standard that we go by. It's going to be expected."
Certifications Important to Few
Though not many customers seek out green cleaning, even fewer — about 20 percent — require the use of green certified products. Though it's still a small percentage, the number of customers requesting certified products has nearly doubled from 11 percent three years ago.
Low demand isn't stopping BSCs from adopting high standards for their chemicals, however. About three-fourths of the survey respondents use products certified by third-party organizations such as Green Seal or EcoLogo, or by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment (DfE) program.
The most popular certified products being used by cleaning companies are general purpose chemicals, vacuums, carpet-care chemicals and paper products.
While some say that having multiple certification bodies is a good thing for the industry because it allows more choice, others think it can be confusing to consumers and BSCs alike to have more than one standard.
"I do think there needs to be more of a universal green certification, that could establish the same mark without having all these different green seals from all these different countries," Ryan says. "I just don't know if that's going to be possible."
At this point, it seems few customers are interested in hiring BSCs with green certifications. But as green cleaning is predicted to become standard procedure, demand for certified janitorial experts may grow.
Though contractors have to be reactive to customers' needs, they're also preparing for future demand by stepping into the proactive role of educator. A majority of BSCs are happy to see the industry embrace the idea of green cleaning.
"It is encouraging to see that many of the 'common sense' green approaches are being implemented by a wide number of reputable BSCs," Hendrickson says. "Anything that can increase the credibility of our industry should be eagerly embraced. It has certainly been my belief that by doing our job properly, we can greatly impact the environmental quality of the workplaces we serve."