Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Beat the green hype

September 19, 2010

Integrating greener products into your janitorial toolbox makes a statement to your customers about your commitment to their health and safety.

If you are a building service contractor (BSC), chances are you pitch your greener features and benefits just as the product manufacturers do.

But, what if that pitch doesn''t represent the whole picture?

It''s called greenwashing, and it''s up to professionals like you to extract a clear message about product safety for your customers and building occupants.

Greenwashing is an advertising strategy that paints a "greener" or more eco-friendly picture of a company or product than is really true.

This practice has many forms: Baseless claims, muddy language, irrelevant facts, imbalanced comparisons, hidden trade-offs and flat-out lies.

As cleaning professionals, we are faced with the challenge of sifting through these marketing ploys.

With the right information, this challenge doesn''t have to be so challenging.

Baseless claims
Third-party certification can provide a sound basis for greener claims, especially when paired with a clear understanding of what the certification means.

Organizations like Green Seal, the Green Clean Institute and the Eco Green Award are all paid certification organizations.

Products that carry these seals, marks or brands have met pre-set guidelines and their manufacturers paid a fee for inclusion.

The EPA''s Design for the Environment (DFE) program has both paid certifications and efficacy-based awards.

The Safer Detergents Stewardship Initiative (SDSI) is one of the EPA awards given to companies at no charge, based solely on safety and environmental consideration.

Unfortunately, the certification trend has moved into less than scrupulous territory.

Some companies are developing their own internal certification system.

Muddy language
Words like "natural" and "organic" are often used to muck-up our understanding of what''s in the bottle.

Lead, arsenic and chlorine are all natural elements.

They are not safe for exposure.

The definition of organic is simply something that contains carbon.

People, plants and fruits are all organic.

Organically produced implies that the product is made without the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.

Only USDA Certified Organic products are certain to be free of dangerous chemicals and run-off.

When describing these words for your customers, be sure to explain what they mean for the products you are using.

If a product is made from plants or other organic sources, consumers need to understand why that product is a best choice and how it reduces environmental impact.

"We use natural coconut-based surfactants because they readily biodegrade and have a low impact on waste water streams," says Tom Schneider of EcoDiscoveries. "That''s what natural means. We put it clearly on the bottle."

Irrelevant facts
Chemical superpowers are painting a green portrait of themselves with marketing dollars.

In this new marketing wave, cleaning products claim to be "99 percent natural" because that''s the language that sells.

So what''s that other 1 percent?

The problem with percentages is how deceiving they are, especially in the chemical industry.

It is easy to make a product that is less than 1 percent petrochemical.

In fact, many commercial cleaning products are less than 1 percent toxic.

The other 99 percent is water.

Some of the most deadly products are sold in a 1 to 1000 ratio.

These slim ratios can still represent significant chemical exposure and, when multiplied by repeated use in many facilities, can represent significant contamination of the eco-system.

Hidden trade-offs
Consider both production and product when making greener choices.

Local sourcing has a huge impact on CO2.

Committing your business to sourcing in the U.S. only can greatly reduce the fossil fuels used to get materials to jobsites.

One U.S. company utilizes methane "cogeneration" powered factories to produce its cleaning products.

This is a commendable feat indeed that reduces greenhouse gases by as much as 52 thousand tons annually, according to the company''s website.

However, the cleaning products themselves still matter.

One of this manufacturer''s window cleaning products, which is routinely used in commercial and residential cleaning, contains ethylene glycol, commonly known as anti-freeze, which is a known poison.

Flat-out lies
Bleach gets a lot of press as a dangerous chemical.

One notable bleach manufacturer posts a bevy of information about the safety and efficacy of their household bleach, while admitting on the same corporate website that bleach is an oxidizer.

The website goes on to say that bleach is safe in the environment.

Sodium hypochlorite (the 6 percent solution sold as bleach) is a strong oxidizer.

Products of the oxidation reactions are corrosive.

The science is faulty.

Furthermore, the European Union classification lists the chemical as "N," or dangerous for the environment.

Getting greener
When considering a switch to greener products, first make sure the products are actually green.

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is an invaluable tool when used properly.

Everyday consumers are acutely aware of finding this kind of information on the Internet on their own.

If you have a website for your business, voluntarily posting your MSDSs increases consumer confidence in your green claims.

Most non-greenwashed formulators are happy to provide this information.

When you examine the MSDSs, watch for petroleum derivatives, chlorine and ammonia.

These products are considered to be the three major offenders when it comes to health and the environment.

Looking for more obvious signs to help your customers understand your commitment to being green?

Nix the fragrances and dyes.

Fragrances often contain phthalates, chemicals linked to reproductive health problems and liver cancer in animal studies.

Dyes have no cleaning power and are often made from petrochemicals.

Cleaners labeled "free-and-clear" are ideal for both the environment and people with allergies and sensitivities.

As a responsible cleaning professional, it is important to disclose exactly what chemicals you are using and the chemicals you are not using.

As the information age continues to grow, your customers are exposed to plenty of misinformation.

Let them know that less dangerous is not the same as safe.

Describe your corporate mission and commitment to safer and greener cleaning products.

Being offensive during this shift in consumer ideology will place your cleaning company at the forefront of the green revolution.

Danielle Downs Trott is a writer and environmental advocate for EcoDiscoveries in Atlanta, GA. EcoDiscoveries is the only safe and effective green cleaning solution she uses. For more tips on going green, contact her at or check out