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Transitioning Beyond Green: A Look At The Future Of The Cleaning Industry

September 19, 2010
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The past decade has seen rapid growth in the awareness of green cleaning and sustainability issues.

Just five years ago, cleaning industry trade shows, such as ISSA/INTERCLEAN and Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), featured a scant dozen companies exhibiting green products and services.

At last year''s ISSA convention, however, virtually every exhibit had some type of green product, service or message.

Yet, as far as the green movement has come within the cleaning industry, there is much more that can be done.

Key Green Definitions

Before we look forward to where the cleaning industry can go from here, it is first helpful to be in agreement on the definitions of some key green terms and phrases, including green cleaning, sustainability and the triple bottom line.

The most accepted definition of green cleaning, which is "cleaning to protect health without harming the environment," comes from U.S. Presidential Executive Order 13101 — renewing the 1993 Order 12873.

In an effort to focus governmental purchases on more environmentally friendly alternatives, the order defines these products as "… those products and services which reduce the health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose."

The order goes on to state that the "… comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, production, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance or disposal of the product or service."

Sustainability became a foundation term of the green movement in 1987 when it appeared in "Our Common Future," a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development.

"Sustainable development" was defined as "… development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The triple bottom line is a term originally coined by John Elkington in 1994.

He suggested that organizations must not only focus on profits, but also on their impact on people and the environment.

The icon for this term is a three-legged stool because each of the three legs must be strong and no one is more important than the others.

A sustainable business, organization or industry depends on a balance between profit, people and the environment.

The Impact Of Green Cleaning On The Triple Bottom Line

Fundamentally, green cleaning is closely tied with the concepts of sustainability and the triple bottom line, although its focus has typically been on environmental and economic results.

Choices made in the selection of products, equipment, paper and other supplies have significant economic and environmental impacts.

The Business of Green Cleaning, which is published by the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), notes the following:

  • Over six billion pounds of cleaning chemicals are consumed annually in the performance of cleaning tasks. While chemicals are often necessary to properly clean a facility, misuse and overuse due to lack of training are very common. And, many of these products are still made from scarce non-renewable resources.

  • The 4.5 billion pounds of janitorial paper consumed each year are still primarily composed of virgin tree fiber, equivalent to almost 30 million trees. And even more importantly, the manufacturing and bleaching processes have enormous environmental and health impacts, offering significant opportunities for improvement.

  • Approximately one billion pounds — or 40 dump truck loads — of discarded janitorial equipment heads to landfills every year. The overall impact of this waste goes far beyond the impact on landfills. Every part of the product life cycle is impacted, from raw material extraction to manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use and disposal. Poorly designed or constructed equipment, along with the "throw-away vacuum cleaners" and other products designed for limited one-time use, consume tremendous amounts of resources, may cause worker injuries and generally do not clean well — not a sustainable proposition.

In addition, the cleaning industry in the United States is made up of almost 100,000 companies.

Many of those companies have multiple facilities, cars, delivery and maintenance trucks and other vehicles that all consume fuel, water, electricity and other resources.

These companies also produce by-products and add other materials to the waste stream.

The Social Impact Of Sustaining Green Cleaning

As the cleaning industry continues to evolve in its adoption of more sustainable practices, manufacturers, distributors and service providers will be expected to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability not only through their products and services, but also through their internal and external operations.

Undoubtedly, as facility managers, building service contractors and other cleaning professionals further embrace green cleaning concepts, sustainability and the triple bottom line themselves, they will select distributors and vendors who share that commitment.

Issues that the cleaning industry as a whole will have to deal with in the not too distant future include:

  • Green collar jobs and the living wage. The wages, benefits, training and advancement opportunities offered to service employees are becoming increasingly important. These workers are typically at the lowest end of the pay scale and typically receive little training or benefits. Because the jobs are viewed as offering little room for advancement, turnover is high. However, building service contractors are constrained in their ability to provide better compensation and training largely by their inability to charge more for their services. As facility managers seek to create "sustainable" facilities, it will be important for them to begin considering the impacts on all of the building occupants and employees.

  • Extended product responsibility. Already in many parts of Europe, manufacturers are required to retain responsibility for their products at the end of their useful lives. It is likely this expectation will be expanded to other parts of the world. The Business of Green Cleaning suggests that more than one billion pounds of powered janitorial equipment is discarded annually in the United States. This represents an opportunity for equipment manufacturers to salvage usable or renewable parts to use in new products. While it is unlikely that the United States government will mandate such programs in the near future, forward-thinking manufacturers have an opportunity to begin implementing end-of-life programs as a cost-savings measure that also aligns with their sustainability goals and offers a marketing advantage over competitors. Going a step further, leaders will take into consideration end-of-life in the initial product design. This concept is called cradle-to-cradle design.

  • Sustainability. Green cleaning products, equipment and services are becoming more available at an increasing rate. In fact, many larger building service contractors would agree that using green products is expected — a typical requirement in every new request for proposal. As green cleaning services become the norm, more facility managers will begin to shift their focus to sustainability issues.

Large national and international facility managers are evaluating the "greenness" of their service providers as part of the proposal process. It is not enough to use green products or processes; these management companies are asking about the service provider''s carbon footprint, vehicle fleets, internal purchasing programs, recycling policies and programs and more.

As this focus continues to develop, the questions will be pushed back further to the distributors and manufacturers of the products, equipment and supplies.

Green companies will want to do business with and buy from green companies.

The Future Of Green

For an industry that has been viewed as a commodity for decades, these are exciting and challenging times.

The cleaning industry has the chance to reshape and repackage itself, to move from a commodity business to being a value-added partner in facility maintenance.

As the industry becomes more sustainable, the opportunities for growth and new profits are enormous, as is the opportunity to make a difference in our society and on the environment.

Stan Mierzejewski is senior manager of sustainability with Tennant Company, a world leader in designing, manufacturing and marketing solutions that help create a cleaner, safer world. Contact Stan at

David Holly is a member of The Ashkin Group, an internationally recognized consulting firm working to green the cleaning industry and co-author of The Business of Green Cleaning. Contact David at

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