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How Is Green Cleaning Regulated?

By Lawrence Smith


The International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) recently called green cleaning “arguably the No. 1 trend in the industry—a marketplace phenomenon driven by customer demand” that is “showing no signs of slowing down.”


So, is green cleaning going mainstream?


Not according to Dave Thompson, Director at Academy of Cleaning Excellence. He counters that green cleaning is “anything but mainstream,” primarily because we still use equipment and procedures that are anything but green.


While green cleaning may not be mainstream, consumers are increasingly concerned about the negative health effects of things like allergens and toxic chemicals; consumers are demanding that the buildings they live in, work in, do business in, and vacation in are healthy.


It behooves us to take these concerns seriously. But if we decide to “go green,” we better get it right.


“Going green” involves more than slapping a green leaf on a website, for example, or simply saying products are “environmentally friendly.” Savvy consumers, particularly the very environmentally-conscious younger generations, won’t put up with this kind of misrepresentation or “greenwashing”. In short, commitment to green cleaning must be genuine and not just a token jump on the green bandwagon.


We lose customers that way.


So, what is green cleaning anyway? The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) defines a “high-performance green cleaning policy” as a commitment to protecting occupant health and using products, equipment, methods and training specifically designed for green cleaning. Steve Ashkin, founder and CEO of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm focused on “greening” the cleaning industry, keeps it simple: green cleaning is “cleaning to protect health without harming the environment.”


But who’s watching? Are there regulations that define green cleaning and hold companies accountable?


Well, yes and no. To explain this further, it will help to know a bit of history.


In 1962, when Rachel’s Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the dangers of pesticides, much of both the public and the U.S. government became aware of the devastating environmental effects of toxic chemicals. An environmental movement was born, and over the next decade, DDT was banned, the EPA established, and green-cleaning products began to appear.


Fast forward to 1993. Then-President Clinton issued Executive Order 12873, addressing recycling and waste reduction and encouraging government agencies to use “environmentally preferable” products and services, which are “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.”


This covered the entire life cycle of a product, from acquisition of raw materials to disposal; but enforcement, for the most part, was expressed in terms of recommendations rather than requirements.


Subsequent executive orders attempted to strengthen federal management and addressed emerging issues like carbon emissions. While each order had a bit more “teeth” than previous ones, there remained a lot of confusion within the cleaning industry about just what green cleaning is or what makes a particular cleaning product green.


In addition to federal regulations for government agencies, a few state regulations began to address the cleaning of public and private schools. New York led the way in 2006, and nine more states followed; but overall, these state policies again take the form of recommendations rather than requirements. For example, Missouri’s Green Cleaning Guidelines and Specifications for Schools (2008) “set forth a series of recommended practices to improve the health and environment of educational settings.” Thus, after a nearly six-year process to get this policy past the state legislature, Missouri’s policy was reduced to a set of recommendations with no provision for enforcement. New York’s Green Cleaning Law requires schools to “procure and use environmentally sensitive cleaning and maintenance products”; but it falls short of mandating comprehensive green cleaning programs with penalties for noncompliance.


The need for clear standards and accountability opened the door to the ecolabeling movement. Green Seal led the way in 1989, creating standards that helped to clarify just what a green cleaning product is and providing certification. Similar product certification is provided by EPA Safer Choice and UL Ecologo. Certification of cleaning organizations is provided by ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS). Certification costs money, of course, and often lots of it, leaving smaller operations at a disadvantage.


To return to the question of whether or not green cleaning is regulated, my answer remains “yes and no.” State and federal policies exist, but they generally lack “teeth” when it comes to accountability. Third-party certification is, of course, voluntary and comes with a cost; but it has its own means of enforcement (or incentive) in the form of denying certification if standards are not met. This voluntary submission to specific standards has been very effective at defining and verifying green cleaning without government intrusion. Today, a Green Seal or other ecolabel on a website or product is a sought-after symbol of a genuine commitment to the health of people and the planet.


Two closing thoughts.


First, whether or not we think green cleaning is becoming mainstream, we must recognize that consumers are increasingly savvy about dangers to their health, and cleaners and disinfectants are among the worst offenders. The demand for healthy cleaning is only going to increase. If we don’t pay attention, we risk getting left behind.


Second, the green cleaning bar is continually being raised as new technologies, such as on-site generation, for example, make green cleaning simpler, more cost-effective and, yes, even greener. Green cleaning is more accessible now than ever and is worth exploring for any business in the industry.


Lawrence Smith is a consultant to the ECA industry. He can be reached at larrysmith5876@gmail.com or 978.985.1116.