From new-age microfibers to riding auto-scrubbers to nanotechnology, a surprising number of tomorrow’s cleaning innovations are already in widespread use today — in Europe. “Europe is three to five years ahead of us, typically,” says William Griffin, president of Seattle-based Cleaning Consultants, Inc. “It’s been that way for many years.”

Take microfiber technology, for example. First developed by Scandinavian cleaners, microfiber was in general use in Europe years before most cleaning professionals in the United States decided to implement it into their cleaning program.

“I remember when we first started hearing stories of case studies from Europe where hospitals were using microfiber technology to clean with just water — no chemicals. People here were quite stunned and even cynical about its effectiveness,” recalls Dianna Bisswurm, director of marketing for ISSA.

Now that cleaners within the United States are increasingly enthusiastic about microfiber technology – and are using microfiber wipes, cloths, mop heads, and more – their European counterparts have already begun to shift to the next-generation technology — improved microfiber blends.

There are a variety of reasons why the cleaning industry’s cutting edge has long been sharper in Europe, observers say. Some cleaning experts comment that because the nations in Europe are older, the culture of cleaning has developed differently than what we have seen in the United States. Because countries such as Great Britain, Sweden, Italy and others are so much smaller in size than the United States, they were able to focus their attention on issues such as water pollution and natural resources depletion sooner than here in the states.

“This doesn’t mean that every building in Europe is spotless,” notes Dave Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences. “It’s just that they have put a greater value on cleaning, on standards and assessments, for much longer than we have.”

Comparing training and certification programs
The most representative difference between the two countries’ cleaning industries, say many experts, are the training and certification benchmarks contained in Europe’s ISO 9000. Managed by the International Organization for Standardization, the ISO 9000 is among ISO’s most widely known standards. It is implemented in roughly 887,770 organizations within 161 countries. Its primary focus is quality management, such as customer quality and satisfaction, and regulatory requirements.

“One thing that’s very significant in Europe is ISO 9000,” says Rita McCauley, president of Grosvenor Building Services, Inc., a commercial cleaning company with offices in Orlando, Fla., Ireland and the United Kingdom. “It is the gold standard. All large companies in Europe must be ISO 9000-certified. It’s really only in its infancy in the United States, but in Europe it’s the benchmark for every type of organization.”

Frank, who helped write ISSA’s new Cleaning Industry Management Standard, says that his committee did indeed study ISO 9000 as a template, but concluded that those certification requirements had more relevance to manufacturing than to service. He says that ISSA’s aim is a set of quality management standards specific to in-house cleaning companies and building service contractors alike. And he hopes that it will eventually create nothing less than a top-down realignment of the cleaning industry in this country – and in some important ways, make it more like Europe’s.

“The difference between Europe’s structure and ours up to this point is that they do layers upon layers of assessments,” says Frank. “They observe the task from cradle to grave. Our industry has countless documents on how to clean. That’s not even the problem. The problem is in how that information is communicated to the worker.”

And that problem, notes Frank and others, has its roots in a deeper issue: a lack of public and even institutional respect for the people who do the actual cleaning.

“In Europe, these are often career jobs and skilled labor jobs, not entry-level and cheap-labor jobs, as they are perceived in the United States,” Frank says. “What needs to change is that at some level there has to be a recognition that this industry is a profession and that it requires professional workers. This message has to come from upper management. We can’t begin the educational process with janitors.”

Griffin, for one, agrees that an emphasis on cleaning as a career in Europe has helped the industry there stay strong. “Europeans are more advanced when it comes to training and certification, and some of that is driven by their unions,” he says. “They’ve put some credibility into the job.”

Many observers say that ISSA’s new standard will be a framework for change. Others are cautiously optimistic. “Part of the difficulty of creating a U.S. version of ISO 9000 is that there are just a lot of competing uses and philosophies on what counts as ‘best,’” notes Andrew Bales, director of environmental services for Mason General Hospital in Shelton, Washington.

Nevertheless, Frank hopes ISSA’s guidelines will help create change by providing managers with a structure they can use to measure and validate the benefits of that change: more productivity, fewer on-the-job injuries, less asset damage, and so on. In fact, Frank predicts that the standard will ultimately lead to an ISO-like certification process for the U.S. cleaning industry.

Moving the market forward
In addition to improved processes, the assessments and communication between worker and manager that are hallmarks of Europe’s cleaning industry also contribute to the research and development of new products and technology in those countries. Companies in Scandinavian countries, for example, are always on the lookout for ergonomic innovations, says Mark Armitage, ISSA’s director of European Services. “Price is not their main concern, ergonomics is,” he explains. “If a new product is harmful to the worker, they won’t use it.”

Efficiency also motivates research and development, especially in countries such as Germany, Belgium and Holland. The result? Innovations such as modular cleaning carts, color-coding, and divided mop buckets, all of which are now mainstream American products. And all of which were first developed and used in Europe.

Griffin cites riding auto-scrubbers, floor-cleaning machines a worker can stand on, as another example of European innovation – and of the way that European inventors seem to be able to reinvent the products that are still relatively new to the marketplace.

He explains: “First there was one company selling them, now there are three or four. And now one company has a modular machine that you can change the front component on. You drop in a cassette and it can burnish, scrub, sweep and extract. There’s no need, now, for a cleaning department to buy five different floor machines.”

Machines that clean escalators, those that feature cylindrical brush technology, and even battery-powered vacuums are also among the many European innovations that are just now making their way into the mainstream of the American cleaning industry.

“We’re seeing products that are more intuitive coming from Europe,” Frank says. He cites cylindrical brush technology as an example, noting it was developed in response to the fact that architects now design more buildings with lower-cost grouted floors. As a result, cleaners needed to adapt and wanted a machine that could clean both carpet and hard-surfaced floors.

“In Europe, cylindrical brush technology with encapsulation has rushed to replace bonnet cleaning,” Frank says. “It’s a major innovation.”

Griffin notes that American cleaners are probably more advanced in carpet and specialty cleaning, but says that Europe has advanced in utilizing some of the innovations that involve nanotechnology or computerization. Cleaning professionals in Europe, he says, are interested in cleaning particles that can penetrate deeper into carpets and surfaces.

Beyond specific cleaning advancements, facility managers in Europe have also updated their human resources and hiring processes. Armitage notes that cleaning personnel in the United Kingdom now use a swipe card that contains information on previous employment.

“It’s a very revolutionary thing,” he says. “Every cleaner in the industry now has an ID card. They swipe it through a machine and the employer can see where, and for how long, he or she has worked.”

What’s next?
Observers say they haven’t noticed much enthusiasm, here or abroad, for robotics. “It’s something that we anticipated would really catch on in Europe, but hasn’t really taken off,” says Armitage. Instead of a revolutionary new technology coming out of Europe in the next few years, Armitage and other experts advise cleaners to watch for innovations that are more evolutionary in nature. Especially those advancements that combine technologies to improve existing products.

“Rather than a product doing just one thing, I think we’re starting to see products with multiple benefits,” says Griffin. “A floor finish that has antimicrobials and an anti-slip property, for example. Or a carpet spotter that has encapsulation, disinfectant and a deodorizer. We’ll be using less product but it will do more.”

Equipment will be refined, too, say experts. Floor machines for example, still spin and throw a certain amount of dirt in the air, but probably not for long. Better filtration and capturing systems are on the mainstream horizon. As are on-board chargers and automatic gel batteries.

“There are also a whole host of tools that are whisper quiet – Europe started with the battery-powered vacuum three or four years ago, for instance,” says Frank, “because more equipment is being used for day cleaning in Europe.”

Simplicity and efficiency will no doubt continue to drive innovation, too, because margins are as tight in Europe as they are in America. Look for lexicons and symbols to become increasingly popular ways to convey information and make it easy for a worker of any nationality to understand how to operate, for example, a floor machine.

Europe’s influence will continue to be felt in many non-product aspects of cleaning, especially as the American cleaning industry moves through a predicted series of changes in practices and procedures.

“Product certification has become very big in the United States,” notes Frank, “but best practices, safety, skill sets and knowledge of the process are also very important.”

Frank and others predict that the U.S. emphasis on products will likely be supplemented by the growing significance of training and retraining programs and a greater interest in cleaning processes.

“Following Europe’s lead,” says Griffin, “I think we’ll see less use of disinfectants and more emphasis on process and protocols…on actual cleaning rather than trying to kill the germs that you should have removed but didn’t.”

Frank and other experts agree, predicting that an interest in training, certification and upward mobility will only grow throughout the American cleaning industry. All of which, Frank notes, point to an industry that is, in a sense, growing up.

“When you have standards, certification, higher levels of technology,” he explains, “those are all signs that the industry is maturing.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.