A lot of good-in-theory ideas — especially altruistic ones — seem to require an incubation period before they get off the ground. They can languish for years until the money follows — when the business sector finds a way to make economic sense of them.

Green is one such idea. While it has received its share of lip service for the past decade or two, it now has real legs to stand on: jan/san customers are beginning to realize that green not only means better living and working environments, but that it also pays off financially.

For that reason, green initiatives are taking root across the United States. Governments in the states of Massachusetts and Minnesota, and the cities of Santa Monica, Calif., Phoenix and Seattle, have established environmental purchasing programs. They’ve also developed and documented purchasing criteria that make it easier for other city and state governments to follow suit.

Other new initiatives — programs that address the design, construction and maintenance of green buildings — are spurring end-user interest in green as well. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design™ (LEED), and LEED-EB™ (for existing buildings), have fanned the green movement’s flames — and given building operators parameters to follow to be considered environmentally sustainable. The programs, and other government and private initatives, have produced a whole new segment of green-products purchasers.

And while there are a few janitorial supply distributors that have capitalized on green business opportunities, others have been slow to embrace the philosophies. Many are confused about what green means, or have doubts about green products’ effectiveness and cost. Other distributors have yet to see a concerted customer push for these products. Still, experts say green will steadily gain acceptance, and that distributors who stay current on the trend will win green business; those that ignore the trend may risk losing customers.

“Because the benefits [of green] really do affect building occupants and productivity, this is a major trend in the industry,” says Stephen Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group in Bloomington, Ind., who has helped develop many current cleaning standards. “It’s not just a trend, it’s an investment in the future.”

That future promises some lucrative business opportunities for distributors. Brad A. Bobbitt’s company, which recently received the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) prestigious “Closing the Circle” award for making a positive environmental impact, has a sense of green products’ potential. Bobbitt is vice president of sales for the Pennsauken, N.J.-based distributor Eagle Maintenance Supply.

One of Bobbitt’s key customers serves many government buildings in Washington, so the requirements surrounding the use of environmentally preferable products is a major focus of Bobbitt’s business. From DOI headquarters to Ft. Bragg Army Base, Bobbitt strives to educate customers regarding green cleaning systems and methodologies, in addition to the cleaning products themselves.

Bobbitt has been known to spend days performing waste audits, or studying a facility’s recycling and waste disposal systems to figure out ways to operate the facility more efficiently. The company also performs chemical audits for customers, replacing numerous products with fewer, more environmentally preferable ones.

The company’s focus includes preventive maintenance, as well. The approach has earned Bobbitt new business — green has now become at least 50 percent of Eagle’s business, all in the past four years.

“It’s been very easy to grow the business that quickly,” he says. In the past two years, Eagle convinced 47 customer locations to switch to green cleaning.

Who’s In the LEED?
While other distributors grapple with how to approach green, many end-user customers are already there. The green movement — a culmination of government, business and environmental advocacy group efforts — includes some voluntary and some mandated initiatives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program often requires federal procurement officials — with their $200 billion in buying power — to give environmentally preferable products preference.

The USGBC’s LEED programs are entirely voluntary, and consist of points systems building owners use to achieve recognition. In accumulating points to achieve LEED certification, facilities in every segment — commercial, hospitals, laboratories, government — look to elevate their marketing message as well as their bottom line.

While parent program LEED focuses on facility design, LEED-EB opened the door for the USGBC to bring cleaning into the rating system, explains Michael Arny, chair of the LEED-EB committee and president of Leonardo Academy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Madison, Wis. Because the goal is to make existing buildings environmentally sustainable, earning points often involves an overhaul in the way managers purchase and use cleaning products. Seven or eight points of the 72 needed to achieve LEED-EB certification are cleaning-related, says Arny. “Considering all the aspects of sustainability of buildings, that’s quite a few credits,” he says. It’s also one of the least costly ways to earn points, since it doesn’t require significant capital expenditures.

The prevalence of LEED-EB-registered projects in Portland, Ore., has been one factor in Coastwide Laboratories’ green product sales growth — 8 percent last year. Not bad in an overall flat year, says Roger McFadden, vice president of technical services and product development for the Wilsonville, Ore., distributor and manufacturer.

That growth shows no signs of leveling out, either; the company predicts 40 percent growth in green product sales this year. The company’s five-year plan includes phasing out conventional cleaning products altogether.

Interest in LEED will propel interest in green for other market segments, as well. LEED-EB’s post-pilot version is slated for release in early 2004, and Arny expects a spike in interest once USGBC promotes the program. He sees LEED-EB becoming a respected, widespread approach to building operations. He believes building occupants and operators will require that their buildings be maintained in accordance with LEED specifications.

Today, the nation’s 441,213 federally owned buildings have been among the frontrunners in green adoption. Ashkin also sees health care facilities, day care centers and other commercial buildings getting on board soon. “When buildings house vulnerable populations, they will be more inclined to be sensitive to green issues to protect the occupants of their buildings.”

LEED has given building owners who desire sustainable buildings the parameters needed to achieve their green goals, Arny contends. Another plus: green buildings are often less costly to run.

“Green cleaning and other aspects of sustainable building operations reduce energy use, reduce water use, and simplify cleaning methods with improved chemicals,” says Arny. “All of the cost streams in a building are able to be reduced by operating a building in a sustainable way.”

A Combined Effort
Programs such as LEED-EB lay out specific ways for building owners to attain points. With clear, concise criteria, purchasing personnel have an easier time sorting through information and making a buying decision.

Certifications and standards take the guesswork out of what green means, and city, state and federal governments are making it easier for distributors by including standards in purchasing contracts.

One certification, Green Seal, has emerged as the cleaning industry’s most widely recognized product certification standard. Earning the Seal — or having proof of meeting its criteria — is now widely considered a prerequisite for product consideration for many agencies and buildings.

Green Seal, an independent, non-profit Washington, D.C.-based testing organization, has developed criteria for identifying environmentally preferable products. Years of collaboration with research partners, governmental agencies and other standard-making bodies worldwide enabled Green Seal to develop standards for a number of product categories, including “Industrial and Institutional Cleaners,” “Cleaning and Degreasing Agents,” “Tissue Paper” and “Paper Towels and Paper Napkins.” Approximately 300 products in 40 categories (from building products to cleaning chemicals) have been certified, says Green Seal’s president and CEO Arthur Weissman, Ph.D. In the “Industrial and Institutional Cleaners” category, most of the 45 products have been certified in the past two years.

Green Seal criteria is specific. Requirements for cleaning chemicals are technical and address, among other things, toxicity, biodegradability, fragrances, concentration and even user training. Paper towels and napkins, for example, must contain 100 percent recovered materials, 40 percent of that in the form of post-consumer material by weight.

Green Seal certification has become the de facto industry standard for green purchasing, in part because it was the first organization to set a high standard for numerous environmentally preferable cleaning products. Because the designation carries weight with purchasers, many manufacturers seek certification to use in their marketing messages. Weissman says he has been flooded with inquiries from manufacturers about getting certified.

There is a cost to achieving Green Seal certification. Certification from similar organizations (in Europe, for instance), the manufacturer’s size, as well as other tests performed are considered in the total cost. The cost ranges from a couple thousand dollars to $7,500. The average cost per product is $4,000 to $5,000, Weissman says.

“We’re trying to identify leaders in the market in terms of their products’ environmental attributes,” he says.

Following The Lead
Like many other green-purchasing pioneers, The Center for a New American Dream, Takoma Park, Md., an environmental advocacy group, settled on Green Seal as its recognized cleaning products standard after comparing it to a number of international standards, including: Environmental Choice (Canada), Blue Angel (Germany), Eco Label (Europe) and Nordic Swan (Netherlands), says Scot Case, director of procurement strategies for the group.

When the Center settled on Green Seal certification (or proof of meeting the criteria), it shifted $15 million in cumulative buying power — 3,500 state, county and local governments — to Green Seal-certified green cleaning products, paper and other environmentally preferable products.

“We got [buyers] to look at their specifications and all agree on one standard for what was going to be considered a green product. The group decided to endorse the Green Seal Standard,” Case says.

Bobbitt concurs that Green Seal certification makes finding green products easier, but it’s not foolproof.

He cites a non-Green Seal-certified paper company he came across while researching products that actually had a higher, thus more preferable, post-consumer waste content than a Green Seal-certified company’s products. “You have to do your research,” he adds.

Case points out that the purchasing language his organization has developed does not require Green Seal certification per se. Instead, it requires proof that products meet the criteria of the Green Seal standards; a third-party organization could submit test data that proves the company meets the criteria. (New Dream lists both product types on its website.)

And sometimes, Green Seal approval isn’t enough. In the eco-conscious Northwest, Coastwide Laboratories has had to respond to many demands from customers — electronics customers and companies transplanted from countries where cleaning is more advanced, for example — who want green products that exceed Green Seal’s requirements. In fact, Coastwide recently hired a full-time director of sustainability, says McFadden. In these cases, McFadden’s company provides full disclosure of the company’s products’ ingredients, and the customers can be the judges.

Some products cannot be certified green due to toxicity or similarity to other products in the same category. Certifying bodies such as Green Seal, however, are attempting to address as many product categories as possible, even floor finishes and strippers; the proposal for a standard that addresses that product group is scheduled to be released in March or April, Weissman says. Product categories are chosen based on whether there’s a broad range of environmental impact among the products in a particular pack — those with the least environmental impact are seen as the leaders.

With the popularity of Green Seal, more certifying organizations and new criteria will surface in the future, Ashkin adds. Floor care and carpet care product standards are in the pipeline, and Ashkin says he’d like to see better standards for vacuum cleaners, equipment and walk-off mats.

There are other recognized standards that are consistently being adopted. They are the EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, which address products with recycled content; the ASTM’s Standard Guide on Stewardship for Cleaning Commercial and Institutional Buildings (ASTM E1971), which covers purchasing and cleaning. The Chlorine-Free Products Association (CFPA) certifies towel and tissue. Some customer buildings adhere to more stringent building-wide standards such as ISO 14000 Standard, McFadden says.

Many Misconceptions
Even with increasing environmental awareness, many distributors balk at considering green products because they think they cost more. Many believe greening a facility will always result in a higher cost to the customer. While that may have been common in the past — even five years ago — it’s no longer the case, industry experts say.

Green cleaning products tend to be high-quality products, Ashkin explains. “When clients ask me if it’s going to cost more, I answer by saying that if you’re currently buying good, quality products, then green cleaning won’t cost you any more. If they’re buying cheap products, then green might cost them more. Sometimes it costs more; sometimes I’ve been able to save people money.”

The state of Massachusetts, for instance, has reported its initial estimates, which show the cost of green products to be about the same as traditional products, Case adds.

Some manufacturers have objected to the cost of Green Seal certification, but Ashkin says the cost is actually quite reasonable. He says the cost — on average, $4,000 to $5,000 — is not prohibitive to any size manufacturer.

Product performance is another distributor concern. Green products were not always as effective as they are today, and some people still hold onto the belief that they won’t work as well as traditional products. However, Case says his organization’s definition of green products requires that they work well.

“A product is not green unless it is as effective or more effective than traditional products,” he says, adding that the products his organization endorses must meet extensive performance criteria.

Bobbitt says once his customers try green products, they usually find them very effective. Of the many accounts he has seen convert to green, not one has switched back.

What’s Next?
Potential for success with green products is evident, but for distributors to remain on top of the trend, there needs to be a time commitment made for education.

“Manufacturers have caught up, the purchasers have caught up, and the distributors simply need to know that green products are affordable, available and effective. If [distributors] are stocking green products, they’ll increase their profits and perhaps their market share,” says Case.

Some distributors do the right green song and dance, but don’t have what it takes to help customers piece together an appropriate green program, Ashkin says.

“End users don’t just want to buy a green glass cleaner; they want to buy a green program. Distributor sales reps need to understand the total package — paper, chemicals, equipment, recycling — somebody there has to become a real resource,” Ashkin adds.

Bobbitt agrees. “You have to educate the person you’re calling on before you can even start talking about the products. Once they see what you’re talking about, they say ‘where have you been?’”

Success with green products requires upper management’s commitment to invest in the time and education for the sales staff. In many cases, end users are already well-versed in these products, and if a distributor salesperson comes in who knows less than they do, his or her role as educator is compromised.

There are many ways for distributors to get educated, says McFadden. He suggests working with vendors to attain green goals; partnering with customers to learn about the solutions that interest them; contacting green-focused associations and organizations; and reading and researching the information that’s available. He also suggests becoming involved in local green initiatives, and starting a sustainability program within the distribution companies themselves.

“The companies that are succeeding have really made green a priority,” says Ashkin. “They recognize the value of that opportunity and are committing their resources to succeed at that.”

Case warns distributors not to dismiss green as a fad: “In the next 10 years, those manufacturers, suppliers and jan/san service companies that are not providing green products will be out of business. Within 10 years it will become almost mandatory that cleaning products be green.”

Straight Talk

Green terminology can be confusing. Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, each has a specific meaning:

  • Green: Today’s buzzword for “environmentally preferable.” For purchasing and specification, The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) requires green products to meet a specific set of requirements; for example, they must contain no cancer-causing agents or ozone-depleting compounds. There are a number of other criteria outlined by the DOI.
  • Environmentally preferable: Products or services that have less effect on human health and the environment compared with competing products or services used for the same purpose. These products may have recycled content, minimize waste, conserve energy or water, or be less toxic. Using these products is one aspect of maintaining a building that is environmentally sustainable.
  • Environmentally sustainable: Meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability integrates “green,” or environmentally preferable, practices and products.

LEED’s Growing Momentum

Government initiatives are often the impetus behind trends such as green. Private business often follows. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design™ (LEED) and LEED-EB (for existing buildings) are two programs that could close the divide.

LEED-EB, especially, has fueled demand for a range of green maintenance products. LEED-certified buildings are likely candidates for green maintenance as well.

Since LEED’s December 1998 launch, 89 U.S. LEED-certified building projects have been completed. Another 1,118 building projects are registered, expecting to be certified. “This is something that people are interested in pursuing, and the popularity is exploding. In fact, 3 percent to 5 percent of all new project construction is seeking LEED certification,” says LEED engineer Brendan Owens, Washington.

LEED-EB is still in its pilot phase after its January 2002 launch. Since, 95 buildings have joined the LEED-EB project, including the Pentagon and the National Geographic headquarters. A diverse assortment of U.S. buildings have signed on, says Michael Arny, chair of the LEED-EB committee and president of Leonardo Academy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Madison, Wis.