When the concept of green cleaning began to gain momentum in the 1990s, many people considered it to be a joke. Its proponents were part of a larger cultural wave that sought to curb the hedonistic consumerism of the 1980s with a shift towards more environmentally-conscious consumption. You may recall that the ‘90s is when we saw an increased interest in things like recyclable packaging, natural foods, preserving the rainforests, and protecting endangered species.
This is not to say that there wasn’t an interest in health and environmental issues prior to this time, but as the new millennium approached, there was a heightened awareness of the fragility of the environment and a widespread sense that society as a whole needed to take action before it was “too late.” Environmental statistics predicted dire consequences that would befall our planet if we didn’t heed their warnings and continued our destructive habits.
The “green” cleaning products developed in response to this environmental call-to-arms were full of more idealism than efficacy. They didn’t clean well, and their claims of being green were essentially meaningless, since EPA guidelines were notoriously lax. These products were disregarded within the cleaning industry because they simply weren’t effective. Green cleaning was a wellintentioned fad among consumers that companies used as a marketing ploy for their benefit. For many of us, our view of green products and practices is still tainted by this early disillusionment, and we have never fully taken the green cleaning movement seriously since then. Sure, we may support certain practices or products but I believe that, on the whole, we’ve held back from giving the green cleaning movement our full vote of confidence. More importantly, we have not seen evidence that our consumers are taking it seriously. It is marketable, but only to a limited few. Though this caution was certainly justified a decade ago, the green cleaning movement has evolved so far since then that we cannot afford to ignore or belittle it anymore. What has given the green cleaning and the green movement as a whole such staying power?
The Facts of Life
There was a time when people consumed products that were marketed to them without much thought. People assumed that the products they bought were safe. People drank soda, microwaved their food, and bought produce covered in pesticides without much knowledge or care of any negative side effects. This has all changed in recent years as health concerns, such as increasing rates of diabetes, cancer, food allergies, and the like have forced even the most un-“health conscious” among us to reexamine our American lifestyle. People now want to know about the origins of the products they use and consume, and there is a marked difference in their attitude. We have become active, not passive, consumers asking questions they never would’ve thought to ask 10 years ago: “What are all those unpronounceable ingredients listed on this food label?” Ignorance is no longer bliss.
Cleaning and Health
In terms of our industry, one of the most common health concerns are cleaning products and possible links to cancer. Organizations like the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of California estimate that one in six people will develop some form of cancer within their lifetime. These numbers are likely to continue to rise just as they have over the past 20 years. Though there are many factors that contribute to the growing number of cancer diagnoses—improved means of detection, longer life spans, more awareness, etc—the cancers being diagnosed are increasingly associated with environmental toxins (i.e. contaminants in our environment that are harmful to our health). Increasing cancer rates, especially among younger generations, have made consumers wary of the chemicals used around them on a daily basis. Cleaning products are an obvious target for scrutiny, since they comprise some of the most toxic chemicals in any household.
With this heightened awareness of the negative effects of chemicals, consumers are turning their eye to green cleaning as a means to safeguard their health. Within the cleaning industry, many of us are already aware that green cleaning is just as much about using alternative processes as it is about products. Practices, such as team cleaning and recycling, help reduce electricity, water use, and the amount of trash sent to landfills.
While consumers are certainly concerned with environmental health and sustainability, the real momentum behind the rise of green cleaning is rooted in a concern for personal health. People want to know that they aren’t going to be harmed by the chemicals used to clean the buildings they inhabit eight hours per day. If you haven’t had customers cross-question you about the chemicals you use, you will—it’s only a matter of time. There is large movement towards “detoxifying” life on every level. The food industry has thus far borne the brunt of this focus. (In the recent election, for example, California had a proposition on the ballot to require food manufacturers to list all genetically modified ingredients.) Similarly, the spotlight will also continue to intensify on the cleaning industry and its product manufacturers.
Cleaning chemical manufacturers already disclose their product ingredients on material safety data sheets, but this is no longer enough. No customer wants to comb through these tedious documents. What they want from you, and what they will increasingly pressure you to give, is a commitment to using health-conscious products and practices. They want you to assure them that the cleaning agents you use are as natural as possible. If you aren’t able to do this, some of your customers will undoubtedly switch to a company that can. The key to providing exceptional service is the ability to anticipate your customers’ needs before they themselves are fully aware of them. This societal shift is obvious enough that its inevitable impact on the janitorial industry should come as no surprise.
Even without consumer pressure, green cleaning is making more and more sense. Many green products work just as well as their toxic counterparts, not to mention the fact that an established green cleaning program is a prerequisite for LEED certification. Legitimate reasons for resisting green cleaning are steadily dwindling. Some trends within society come and go, while others have enough momentum to permanently alter the cultural landscape. Green cleaning is part of a larger focus on health that is reshaping our society, our lifestyles, and our business.
Stephanie Kisch is the Community Manager at OctoClean, a janitorial franchising company located Riverside, California, that specializes in hospital housekeeping.