Green cleaning: The journey from niche to mainstream

In 1962, Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book "Silent Spring" was published. It forced the general public and members of the U.S. government to take a serious look at society's use of chemicals and pesticides.

By the end of the decade, young people around the world took up the cause for "ecology," as it was then called. This led to the first Earth Day in 1970, an event reflecting the much greater environmental consciousness that was spreading throughout the world.

Not long afterward, the first green cleaning products made their way onto the shelves of health food stores as the green cleaning movement began. Today, green cleaning is no longer niche, with an increasing number of certifications and other tools that have pushed it into the mainstream.

Green cleaning goes mainstream with certification

More than 20 years passed before green cleaning could make much progress in the professional cleaning industry. One key reason was a lack of standards that clearly defined what a green cleaning product is — and what it is not. Building owners and managers never were sure if the products they used were truly healthier and safer for the environment.

This began to change in 1993, when then-President Clinton signed Executive Order 12873 directing federal agencies to develop plans to purchase environmentally preferable products, which it defined 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."

Importantly, the definition explained that the improvements could be made throughout the product's life cycle, stating that the "comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance or disposal of the product or service."

Throughout the 1990s, federal agencies, state and local governments led the green cleaning movement with the belief that it was their duty to use these affirmative procurement strategies to protect human health and the environment. But as they moved forward, they also became confronted with the sheer complexity of the issues because cleaning requires myriad products, including disinfectants, floor and carpet care products, heavy-duty degreasers and graffiti removers.

Based on the increased demand for green cleaning products came the introduction of green certification organizations, which made it easier for purchasers to identify green products and buy them with confidence.

These independent, third-party organizations are designed to protect consumers and product-users, and help manufacturers and distributors scientifically verify whether a green cleaning product has a reduced impact on the environment, compared to similar products. To earn third-party green certification and bear the ecolabel of the certification organization, products must meet, among other things, three key criteria:

1. The product has been evaluated using science-based environmental leadership standards.
2. It performs as well as or better than other products in its class based on accepted standards.
3. It has been independently certified without bias or conflict of interest.

Additional criteria, standards and attributes that may be covered by green certification include:

• Use of the product helps protect indoor air and environmental quality.
• The product is manufactured using recycled content (postconsumer/postindustrial), as well as being made from renewable, sustainable resources.
• The product does not contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other ozone-depleting substances.
• The product is recyclable and biodegradable.

Green cleaning in the 21st century

Today, green cleaning continues to evolve and grow. In fact, one of the most significant events in the movement just recently went into effect. The U.S. Green Building Council and its members have adopted the latest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification rating system, LEED v4.

One big change requires the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products instead of receiving optional LEED credits for green cleaning products. LEED v4 also requires that facilities increase purchases of green cleaning chemicals, paper products, plastic liners and similar items from 30 percent to 75 percent. It also doubles the required purchases of green cleaning equipment, such as high-air-filtration vacuum cleaners, from 20 percent to 40 percent.

In addition, new compliance options give cleaning product manufacturers, janitorial service providers and facility managers more flexibility and options.

Besides EcoLogo/UL Environment and Green Seal, previously the only certification bodies recognized for LEED certification, v4 now also recognizes the EPA's Design for the Environment program.

Cleaning Industry Management Standard-Green Buildings and GS-42, Green Seal's standard for commercial and institutional cleaning, have been added as options to meet the green cleaning prerequisite.

The new version encourages innovation with the use of devices that turn ordinary tap water into an effective cleaning solution, completely eliminating the environmental impacts associated with the production and packaging of cleaning chemicals.

Greater emphasis is placed on conserving energy and water in janitorial cleaning activities, as well as for on-premise laundry and kitchen operations.

However, LEED v4 is not the only major change affecting the professional cleaning industry. Others include the following:

Ecolabels: Selecting green cleaning products used to be a challenge. With the advent of certification, standards and ecolabels, buyers have been given more tools to choose appropriate products. However, the EPA believes it can be difficult for purchasers to tell which ecolabels and standards are authentic and appropriate.

To help, the EPA recently announced the publication of Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement. While the guidelines are designed to help federal purchasers, they also may help other public sector and private sector markets that rely on ecolabels and standards to make purchasing decisions. Some manufacturers in the industry are concerned that these new guidelines will stifle innovation, however, and it remains to be seen if or how this directive will evolve.

Transparency: Another trend in the industry is for manufacturers to disclose more information about the ingredients in their cleaning products. A step beyond certification and ecolabels, this move is intended to help purchasers better understand all the environmental, safety and health characteristics of products before they select them. Very simply, users want to know what's inside the products they use, even green ones. For instance, one certified-green product may include an ingredient that can cause an allergic reaction in small children. Knowing this, a purchaser can select another green cleaning product that does not include this ingredient. The focus on greater transparency took an important step forward with the recent announcement from Walmart on its chemical requirements with transparency being a major component of their requirements.

Globally Harmonized System: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has modified the Hazard Communication Standard now used in the United States. The modifications are designed to make chemical information and warning labels consistent with those in many other countries around the world and with the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals.

The key reason for the integration is to ensure all chemicals manufactured or used in the United States are labeled so that information on use, precautions and warnings are similar around the globe. In other words, a cleaning worker using a cleaning chemical in India or China will have, know and understand the same set of warning and hazard labels as a cleaning worker in North America. The ultimate goal is safety for the worker as well as building users.

Professional cleaning and cleaning products today are safer, more sustainable, effective and cost effective than those made just a few years back. These changes also have had a major impact on the professional cleaning industry in general. The days of cleaning workers being an invisible part of building operations is long gone. Today, and much the result of the green cleaning movement, they are considered one of the most crucial parts of a facility's or business's operation.

Bottles image by Anton Chalakov via Shutterstock.