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CM/Spotlight: Green Cleaning

September 19, 2010
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Best-selling author, consultant and motivational speaker Stephen Covey says that we need to “begin with the end in sight” — a quote I not only subscribe to, but frequently use as part of my strategic planning process.

Therefore, I believe that the JanSan industry can only understand the past and plan for the future by fully understanding where it is today when it comes to green cleaning.

In the beginning
In the early 1990s, there was little demand for green cleaning.

I remember trying to convince trade publications to run articles on green cleaning; trying to get trade associations to hold seminars at their annual conventions; trying to get distributors, building service contractors (BSCs) and in-house facility directors to invest in new inventory, training programs and business strategies; I even recall meeting with the green innovators, federal agencies, schools, hospitals and the list went on and on as to who we thought were “naturals” for green cleaning.

I remember that basically no one was interested.

Looking back, I understand the lack of success. The JanSan industry didn’t understand what green was. It was confused and so were its customers.

And, because of such low demand, it was virtually impossible to justify the cost for manufacturers to research and develop new green products; it made it difficult for distributors to justify stocking a complete line; it made it difficult for BSCs and in-house facility directors to justify changing their programs when customers and occupants simply didn’t seem to care.

Today’s green market
Today, the market is very different as green cleaning has become easy to accomplish for both the supply and demand side — manufacturers and distributors as well as contractors and building owners.

Organizations such as the US Green Building Council (USGBC) didn’t even exist when this effort began, and today it boasts some 6,000 organizational members including many from the professional cleaning industry.

Its members include distributors in all geographical areas of the country, as well as some of the largest national players in the cleaning contractors’ marketplace and some of the largest building owners and portfolio managers in the country.

Also in the early 1990s, there were only few manufacturers promoting green products, which were often significantly more expensive and/or didn’t perform very well.

Today, there are literally hundreds of manufacturers offering green products in every category — chemicals, paper, equipment, tools, mats, etc.

As manufacturers committed to the green market, the competition increased and forced product innovation.

As the competition increased, costs began to decrease as both economies of scale and tightening margins resulted in products that today work as well, if not better, than their traditional counterparts and at competitive prices.

And in the 1990s when manufacturers marketed green products, there were no standards, no means to truly compare products without being an industrial hygienist, chemist or toxicologist.

Today, there are organizations such as Green Seal, Environmental Choice, and EPA’s Design for the Environment program.

These programs work with both suppliers and customers, and collectively have certified hundreds of products, making it easy for non-technical people to purchase green products with confidence.

So what have we learned?
The JanSan industry has learned that a green product is not simply something made from naturally derived raw materials.

And, it has learned that green is more than just the products themselves.

Green cleaning recognizes the important role that cleaning plays in protecting health.

But what is unique about the green message is that for the first time the impact that the professional cleaning industry has on the environment is recognized.

That has been realized because the industry is so large, annually consuming billions of pounds of chemicals, paper, equipment, tools, etc., and that it makes a huge impact on the environment during the manufacturing, use, transportation and disposal of those products.

Green cleaning has grown from being product-oriented into a thought process that considers all of the products used by the cleaning industry.

In addition, it recognizes that changing procedures can significantly reduce the health and environmental impacts from similar products.

It even looks at preventive strategies such as entry matting systems; improved filtration vacuum cleaner bags; burnishers with vacuum attachments; equipment that reduces energy, water, chemicals and other resources; microfiber cloths and mops to reduce the need for cleaning; and paper dispensers that reduce consumption.

It also recognizes that the users of JanSan products perform other tasks such as waste disposal and recycling that have important environmental implications.

Today, green cleaning even goes so far as recognizing that the behavior of the occupants can affect the amount of cleaning which in turns affects health and the environment.

Thus — by communicating with and educating building occupants, BSCs and in-house facility directors — cleaning, health and the environment can be directly affected.

By putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, the JanSan industry can create cleaner, safer, healthier buildings that reduce impacts on the environment and which result in better performance and productivity by building occupants.

The JanSan industry has learned that it can achieve these things cost-competitively, compared to traditional cleaning approaches.

But perhaps the most important thing learned is that if the JanSan industry invests more in cleaning, occupants would perform better.

The professional cleaning industry can use green cleaning as the “rallying cry” to demonstrate that cleaning is more than an expense that needs to be continuously reduced in order to improve or maintain profit margins.

Green cleaning is now beginning to be thought of as an instrument to drive investment resulting in the success of the JanSan industry, similar to how we currently think about computers and technology.

Green cleaning is becoming the next “low hanging fruit” — one that is becoming increasingly easy to implement and with an exceptional return on investment (ROI).

Where do we go from here?
I’m often asked if in the future everyone will be doing green cleaning. Frankly, I believe the answer is “no.”

While governments may require their buildings to use green approaches, I do not anticipate legislation to mandate cleaning standards across the industry.

Green cleaning will continue to be market-driven with a widening gap in the market.

The gap will separate those organizations focused solely on price and those committed to values such as their employees, the environment, social and community responsibility, sustainability and other similar issues.

From a chemical manufacturing perspective, investments will be made using biobased resources and biological/bacteriological-based chemical products.

Paper companies will explore new sources of fiber to replace trees with switch grass, wheat straw or other rapidly regrowable resources.

Equipment companies will develop new machines that reduce water, electricity, chemical and other resources, while at the same time incorporating recycled materials and designing for remanufacturing.

Some new kind of environmental labeling system will be developed much in the same way as the nutritional labeling for foods.

The difference is that the environmental labeling program will not be driven by the federal government, but rather by major retailers such as Wal-Mart.

This in turn will stimulate other developments such as take-back programs that will give the professional cleaning industry a chance to demonstrate its leadership among all segments.

The growing demand for green products will result in more certifying organizations entering the marketplace.

Organizations such as Green Seal and Environmental Choice will offer a greater number of product standards for yet-to-be-developed product categories.

And I predict that EPA’s Design for the Environment Formulator’s Initiative will be spun off to a private organization such as NSF or GreenBlue in the same way that USDA spun off its food sanitation programs and EPA its municipal water testing program.

In the end
Not everyone will be interested in green cleaning. Some customers will always look for the cheapest means by which to meet the minimum legal requirements.

But for an increasing part of the marketplace, more and more organizations will adopt green cleaning requirements.

In addition to the USGBC, other organizations such as Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, the Healthy Schools Campaign, and other organizations yet to emerge, will begin to promote green cleaning.

Green cleaning will continue to accelerate and become a driving force that will re-establish the value of the JanSan industry, and have a direct and positive impact on the future.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on green cleaning. He can be reached at (812) 332-7950 or at

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