Green Cleaning's Roots
The green cleaning movement in North America can be compared to a train pulling out of a station,” says Stephen Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group, a nationally recognized consulting firm and longtime advocate of green cleaning in Bloomington, Ind. “Slowly but surely, sometimes stalling but then restarting, it’s moving out, going faster and faster all the time.”
A quick look back shows just how fitting this analogy is. Green cleaning actually dates back to the early 1960s when Rachel Carson, a highly respected scientist, published her now-famous book, Silent Spring. Her concerns and the underlying message of the book regarded the use of pesticides — especially DDT, which was used to eradicate pests on farmlands — and their potentially harmful effects on birds, fish and other wildlife. And, of course, people.
Although the book did not address cleaning specifically, it served as a wake up call, causing many people to think about the chemicals that we use every day and their potential long-term effects on our health and the health of our environment.
Indeed, about two years after Carson’s book was published, the public started demanding more laws and regulations to protect the air, water, forests and wildlife, and eventually the use of DDT was banned in the United States. By 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed, largely as a result of Carson’s efforts.
Although the “environmental movement” continued into the 1970s and 1980s, its relevance and priority slowed considerably, and its effect on the jan/san industry was marginal at best. Some “environmentally friendly” cleaning products, mostly manufactured for the home consumer, were introduced at this time. However, many were considered costly and relatively ineffective when compared to their conventional counterparts.
But a big turning point came in 1992, when President Bill Clinton issued presidential Executive Order 13101, which directed the facility managers of more than 100,000 federally owned or operated buildings worldwide to begin using green cleaning products. The Order also defined green cleaning for the first time, stating that it is “the use of products and services that reduce the health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose.”
The movement toward healthier cleaning products continued to evolve and accelerate. Among the developments:
• The U.S. Green Building Council was formed, which, in turn, was influential in defining what constitutes healthier, sustainable design and operation of buildings through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.
• Scores of U.S. cities and states, as well as some school districts, developed or introduced green procurement contracts and operations manuals that often included the adoption of green cleaning.
• Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, the Center for the New American Dream, and the Healthy Schools Campaign, as well as similar environmentally concerned organizations emerged, all promoting the use of green cleaning products.
• The Green Building Initiative, a nonprofit network of building industry leaders committed to accelerating the adoption of green building/operating practices, was formed.
• Major jan/san organizations and trade associations began developing or sponsoring educational programs discussing green cleaning and its importance to the future of the industry.
However, an obstacle yet to be overcome was the fact that there were no recognized certification organizations to evaluate and verify that a product was indeed safer for the environment and comparable to conventional cleaning products. Manufacturers had no parameters that they could use to develop green cleaning products. As a result, many were reluctant to develop environmentally preferable cleaning products. And distributors, as well as end users, were never really sure if the products they were selecting were in fact green.
This changed when the independent, third-party certification organizations Environmental Choice Program™ and Green Seal® were formed. Their green certifications were honored by the majority of groups and advocates for the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products.
“Manufacturers now had one standard to follow, which would help clarify and identify green cleaning products for everyone,” says Ashkin. “[The consistency] would also help bring down manufacturing costs, which would make green cleaning products more cost competitive.”
Certification vs. Regulation
Indeed, many industry experts believe it is because a commonly accepted certification process emerged that numerous jan/san manufacturers rushed to develop environmentally preferable cleaning products. In fact, a look back seems to prove this: there were just one or two chemical manufacturers making green cleaning products five years ago; today there are more than 50.
“What is interesting about the adoption and acceptance of green cleaning in the jan/san industry is that, for the most part, it has been customer driven,” says Scott McDougall, president of the Environmental Choice Program. “It appears that certification programs and market demand — not government regulation — have helped spur the movement forward.”
This was a positive development for a variety of reasons, McDougall says. “Although the regulatory component can be useful, the problem we have seen in other industries is that regulations often set minimal standards, so as not to be too oppressive to any of the players or an industry,” he says. “This tends to discourage innovation and encourage doing just the bare minimum to meet the regulation.”
He also believes that when the bar is set via certification programs, it engages end customers, along with manufacturers and distributors, to become more involved with the certification process, instead of just leaving it to advocates and government regulators.
“Industry leadership roles emerge, and the industry as a whole better understands why the standards are being set,” says McDougall. “We also see the parties work together as a group, evaluating and reevaluating the certification standards and raising them as needs and technology advance.”
As much as he believes the customer and the certification process have helped bolster the adoption of green cleaning chemicals and products, McDougall foresees greater governmental regulation emerging in the future. “This is what we see happening right now with the New York state public schools as the state develops guidelines defining green cleaning products and systems,” he says. “But ultimately, we can still look to customer demand to be the driving force for more rapid changes and innovation in the future.”
What Distributors Think About Green
Although he agrees with many of McDougall’s comments that certification has helped the jan/san industry, Steven Berkowitz, co-owner of Burke Supply, Brooklyn, N.Y., also thinks that clearer definitions to help define green cleaning and environmentally preferable products would be beneficial.
“Right now, especially here in New York, there is a lot of confusion,” he says. “A lot of our clients, especially the school districts, are simply not sure which products are environmentally preferable and which are not; some don’t understand what green certification is all about or what organizations they should listen to. And a few even believe that some manufacturers are ‘self-declaring’ their products green.”
The use of antibacterial hand soaps is a good example of the confusion Berkowitz encounters. “For years we have been advising schools to use these soaps, but now we are telling them it’s bad for the environment,” he says. “If a government body clearly indicates that they are — or are not — green, then at least we can use that as a guide in helping our clients.”
Beyond certification and regulation, Berkowitz believes many customers need to be better educated on green cleaning, which will prove beneficial for both the customer and the customer-distributor relationship. He sees distributors becoming educators and advisers for their customers. In fact, his company has already presented several seminars for both its sales force and customers on green-cleaning issues.
One of the most valuable things these programs teach is that green cleaning involves far more than just chemicals, Berkowitz says. It also includes highly efficient matting systems, vacuum cleaners, paper products, vacuum-filtered floor machines and other products.
“There is also a great deal of misunderstanding about how much green cleaning will cost,” Berkowitz says. “Many of our clients believe transferring to green cleaning will be costly, but we believe it will actually save them money in the long run, especially in schools.”
To counter the cost concern, Berkowitz and his sales team use education to help their customers recognize green cleaning’s benefits: when used in office settings and in schools there is less absenteeism, less chemical waste, reduced workers’ compensation claims, and improved student/worker attendance and performance.
“These benefits far outweigh any small initial outlay the customer may have going green,” he adds.
A Green Future
Although there has been a great deal of progress in the advancement of green cleaning, environmentally preferable cleaning products, and healthier building operations, Ashkin believes there is still far more to come.
“Already, scientists in and out of our industry are working on the next level of green cleaning products, many of which will be far safer and more environmentally sustainable than anything we have today,” he says.
Among the developments Ashkin foresees:
• Bio-based cleaning products made completely from plants using few or no harmful chemicals at all
• “Biomimicry,” which refers to new classes of cleaning chemicals that mimic how soils and contaminants are removed and dissolved in nature
• Bacteria-based cleaning chemicals that are nonpathogenic and better designed to digest organic wastes and soils
• More advanced enzyme cleaners that dissolve contaminants more efficiently
• Floor care products that last several years with minimal stripping and recoating
“I also see our industry playing a much larger role in how buildings operate,” says Ashkin. “We will help facilities scale back on energy use and water consumption, improve recycling programs, and become much more involved with overall occupant health. We’re well past the Model-T era of green cleaning with new technologies soon emerging that can help protect the environment — and our industry as well.”
Robert Kravitz is a 30-year veteran of the jan/san industry, having worked in many capacities. He is currently involved in corporate communications for major organizations in the jan/san and buildings industries.
•1962 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson published
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