Communicating Green Cleaning Advantages

Communicating cleaning practices that are better for health and the environment

I’m a fan of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, which “reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior” and “the biases that shape our choices.” As you might imagine, I’m listening with an ear toward applying the science and the findings to sustainability. My hope is that I’ll hear something that will help address why people aren’t acting in the way that’s more protective of their own health and the environment, or at least I’ll learn why humans aren’t wired to do something and can be less frustrated watching that repeated behavior.

Since Green Seal works in a wide range of market segments, I came across a recent study in a restaurant trade publication that got me thinking about cleaning. The Stanford University study, “Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets,” was published in JAMA Internal Medicine and looked at whether labeling vegetables with more flavorful and “indulgent” descriptors (such as those typically used for less healthy foods) could increase vegetable consumption.

This study was a slightly different approach from the storytelling that many menus include to highlight the source of their ingredients. You’ve probably seen examples like “free-range, grass-fed beef from Jones Ranch,” and “heirloom yellow carrots from our rooftop garden.”

The Stanford researchers tested four different descriptions for the same vegetable menu item, ranging from a basic “carrots” to an indulgent “twisted citrus-glazed carrots.” The other two options included healthy terms, such as “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing,” and “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots.” Each time the food was prepared the exact same way, but one of the four descriptions was randomly chosen for the menu that day. What the study found was that more diners chose vegetables with the indulgent description than with the basic or two health-based labeling options.

Bradley Turnwald, the lead author of the study, noted, “We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasizing health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options.”

Yes, promoting healthy eating by pointing out the health benefits was less effective.

If this quirk of human psychology holds in other areas, how can we better promote cleaning products and practices that are better for health and the environment? We’ve already seen some examples that have been effective.

Concentrated cleaning products, for example, certainly use less plastic packaging and result in less fuel consumption and vehicle emissions when compared to ready-to-use (RTU) products. What are more compelling to many users though, are the significant cost savings (e.g., cents-per-quart instead of dollars-per-quart) and smaller storage space requirements.

Every time I see an aluminum beverage can in a trash receptacle, my engineer brain goes right to bauxite and the energy saved by using recycled aluminum to make new aluminum products (92 percent). To the drinker of that beverage however, the energy savings statistic was either unknown or unpersuasive.

If the carrots and green beans can be trusted, there’s an opportunity for you to make the “less is more” features and benefits that save energy, protect human health, and have reduced impacts on the planet more indulgent when promoting healthy cleaning in your department. 

MARK PETRUZZI is Senior Vice President of Outreach and Strategic Relations with Green Seal. He’s in his third decade of striving for more sustainable purchasing and operations by using his engineering powers for good.