During the past several years, selecting green cleaning products has become much easier as we have increasingly relied on independent third-party organizations to establish standards and verification programs such as those from Green Seal, TerraChoice (managers of the EcoLogo program), EPA's Design for the Environment programs (DfE), and the Carpet & Rug Institute's Seal of Approval Program.

While none of these programs are perfect, they do an excellent job addressing the major aspects of green. More importantly, these programs make it much easier for product manufacturers, cleaning contractors and other purchasers, as well as organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council and Healthy Schools Campaign to manufacture, specify, recommend and ultimately purchase green products.

But while there are standards and certification programs available for many products, including the majority of the ones most commonly used during cleaning, there are numerous product categories in which no program exists, including mops, buckets, carts, matting, ice melt, chemical-free cleaning devices and "no touch" cleaning equipment, as well as specialty chemicals such as graffiti removers, disinfectants and furniture polish.

In situations where there are no third-party standards or certification programs available, contractors should apply the basic definition of "green" to identify what is appropriate. Based on Executive Order 13423 (which has superseded EO 13101 and 12873), green (or environmentally preferable) is defined as those products, which "reduce the health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose. This comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service."

When applying this definition, there are a few important points that contractors should keep in mind. To begin, the definition speaks of green as being a "comparison" to other products. In other words, if the contractor as opposed to a third-party is making the claim of "greenness," then it is the contractor's responsibility to be prepared to defend the decision. While this may sound ominous, it is really not. It simply requires that some objective comparison is made and documented.

Secondly, the definition also points out that the comparison or improvement can be at any point along the entire "life cycle" of the product that results in meaningful improvements in health and environmental impacts.

When purchasing products without third-party certifications, building service contractors should:

  • Prefer tools and equipment that have more durability or are repairable which reduces the environmental impacts associated with replacement because they last longer, as well as the impacts associated with landfills after disposal.
  • Prefer products that clean using less energy, such as more energy-efficient motors in equipment or those that clean effectively with cold water that eliminate the energy needed to heat the water.
  • Prefer equipment and processes that use less water compared to traditional cleaning products or processes.
  • Prefer floor care systems that increase the time periods between intensive maintenance (i.e. stripping and recoating hard floors or hot water extraction of carpets), which reduces health risks to cleaning personnel and building occupants, as well as the overall impacts on the environment from products and disposal.

I am aware that the above list is incomplete, but hopefully it will provide contractors with good examples of how the definition of "green" can be applied to product categories and processes when no third-party standards exist. Also, to avoid greenwashing, be clear about the green product comparison (i.e. what attributes are being compared) and maintain documentation to support the claims.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. He can be reached at ashkin@tradepress.com