One of the new terms heard at the recent ISSA/INTERCLEAN trade show in Orlando, Fla., was the "life cycle" of a product. After years of product manufacturers promoting their "green" products, marketers are looking for new means to differentiate from the competition.

But life-cycle thinking can be much more than just marketing jargon. It can also be a powerful tool for jan/san distributors to help them make decisions about products in an effort to develop the best cleaning program for customers. But the challenge with life-cycle thinking is to understand its appropriate use and limitations when working with both suppliers and customers.

Life Cycles In Green Cleaning

In the early years of the green cleaning movement, green primarily focused on chemicals. The goal was to reduce or eliminate toxic ingredients that caused harm to workers and building occupants, as well as to the environment. To this end, many products were marketed with claims such as "free of" or "no" chlorine, fragrance, carcinogens, etc.

However, as governments, schools, universities, hospitals, retailers, commercial buildings and other customer segments began to express an interest in greener products, manufacturers responded with innovations in chemistry, packaging, dispensing, chemical-free options, performance and more.

Today it is clear that the market has accepted green cleaning. A recent survey by Ipsos Public Affairs found that 31 percent of respondents said that "most of the cleaning products they purchase and use in their business are labeled as green." This represents a 30 fold increase compared to other market segments including consumer products where green represents less than 1 percent of total purchases.

The professional cleaning industry has adopted multi-attribute third-party standards in almost every product category including chemicals, equipment and paper; most other industries still focus on a single attribute and some industries have no green standards at all.

It Starts With Green

Originally authored in 1993, Presidential Executive Order 12873 (which has been reauthorized several times since then) defines environmental preferability (which is a term used interchangeably with green) as "products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose."

What this often meant was when comparing cleaning chemicals, in which most were derived from similar basic materials, packaged in the same plastic bottles, used and ultimately disposed down the drain in the same manner, resulted in a focus on only a limited number of issues. Thus, a "greener" cleaning chemical would often be one that was neutral in pH (close to 7) as compared to those at the extreme end of the pH scale (close to 0 or 14) or be low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) compared to those with higher levels of VOCs, or be higher in concentration compared to others that were ready-to-use or lower in concentration.

These were all important first steps. Developing a "language" around green cleaning that was meaningful to both manufacturers and purchasers was essential for use in the marketplace to drive health and environmental improvements.

But the definition of environmental preferability, or green, actually went far beyond just a simple comparison to traditional products based on their health and environmental impacts. The definition actually went on to state that "this comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, production, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service." And herein lies the introduction to life-cycle thinking.

Defining Life-Cycle Thinking

Life-cycle thinking is typically depicted as a circle beginning with the extraction of raw materials, then leading to manufacturing, use and ultimately disposal, with transportation included between each step. This is also often called "cradle to grave" thinking (the cradle representing where the raw materials came from and grave representing disposal after use). With cradle-to-grave products, considerations can be given at each step to seek more preferable options to reduce impacts including those on health, toxicity, resource use, energy and water consumption, land use, solid waste, emissions and more.

For example, life-cycle thinking contributes to decisions about raw materials such as the use of petroleum as an initial ingredient. Petroleum is a valuable but nonrenewable natural resource, while other ingredients can be derived from alcohols made from renewable or regrowable feedstocks such as corn, sugar cane, coconut or palm oil.

But more than looking at individual ingredients (which is probably beyond the level of detail that distributors want to be involved with) life-cycle thinking helps to address the cleaning process in a more holistic manner.

For example, when looking at laundry operations, life-cycle thinking shows that the greatest environmental impacts do not come from the ingredients, manufacturing, packaging and other areas; they come from the energy used to heat the water. Life-cycle thinking can help distributors with the best solution for a particular customer depending on how they weigh or prioritize the "trade-off" between a product with lower toxicity compared to the energy savings from a product that cleans effectively in cold water.

Life-cycle thinking can also help distributors and end users appreciate that the benefit may have little to do with comparing two similar cleaning formulations. Rather, life-cycle thinking helps to identify opportunities to reduce health and environmental impacts beyond the product's use or disposal by identifying benefits related to areas such as the extraction of raw materials that make traditional chemical ingredients, reducing the petroleum that made the plastic bottles and caps, reducing the cardboard shipping cartons and the transportation throughout the supply chain. And to be clear, there may not be a single right or wrong answer. Life-cycle thinking uses a systematic approach so that individual manufacturers, distributors or end users can view options and select those that are most important to them.

What The Future Holds

With all the value of life-cycle thinking, it is important for distributors to understand that it is as much an art, as it is a fledgling science. For example, the "data sets" used in the calculations such as the quantity of energy or water used during a particular manufacturing process is often proprietary information and not available for public review. This creates uncertainty because two similar products can have very different results depending on the selection of the data set, and an unscrupulous life-cycle practitioner can manipulate the outcome of their calculation by selecting data sets that benefit their product without revealing the data behind the calculation.

One additional and important shortcoming of many life-cycle calculations, which is especially important to the cleaning industry, is that life-cycle calculations are excellent for considering environmental impacts but are often weak in its considerations of human health impacts.

In the future, life-cycle thinking will become more transparent as to the data used in its calculations, which will create a higher level of confidence in its use as a decision-making tool. Imagine the value of a single number or a score similar to a vehicle's gas mileage rating to compare products on their life-cycle impacts.

Beyond considering a product from its beginning when the raw materials are extracted to its end when it is ultimately disposed (cradle to grave), in the future products will be considered from "cradle to cradle." In this next step, products will be considered for how the materials and components could be reused to give birth to a new product. For example, equipment with motors or engine housings that can be returned and reused in new products.

While much of this is still in the future, life cycle, cradle to cradle, and cradle to grave thinking will help distributors make more informed decisions about the products used to help their customers have market-leading green cleaning programs. By looking at product life cycles, distributors will also be a more knowledgeable and valuable product resource for end users.

Stephen Ashkin is the president of the The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ind., and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. He can be reached at or by visiting