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Can Green Cleaning Standards Help Build Your Business? The Benefits of Becoming GS-42 Certified

Written by  Robert Kravitz

Recently, a franchisee of a nationwide cleaning contractor proudly shared that he had secured 19 properties of a local library system, 39 locations of county facilities, and a 100,000 square-foot LEED Gold property. The franchisee then sent a note to the parent company thanking them for encouraging his company to become GS-42 certified, as he believed without that certification, he would never have secured the new accounts.

While this is just one example, Green Seal’s GS-42 certification does have several other benefits. Many contractors and cleaning professionals refer to it as a “differentiator.” What this means is that cleaning services that achieve GS-42 certification are in a different league than their non-certified competitors. With more and more facilities advancing their sustainability efforts and seeking LEED certification, GS-42 compliance can open doors that perhaps would not open otherwise. One reason for this is that LEED-certified buildings are required to use green-certified cleaning products, but they also must go beyond just using green products and have an overall green cleaning strategy in place—which is what GS-42 is all about.

Certification can benefit in-house cleaning professionals as well. “GS-42 certification for our in-house custodial operation marked a major milestone in our progress toward a more sustainable campus at Harvard,” says Jeffrey Smith, Director, Facilities Maintenance Operations at Harvard University. “The extraordinary thoroughness of the certification process convinced us of its legitimate value.

What Is GS-42?
GS-42 is officially known as the Green Seal* Standard for Commercial and Institutional Cleaning Services. As noted on the Green Seal website, the standard was created to “establish environmental requirements for cleaning service providers of commercial, public, and institutional buildings, including in-house and contract cleaning services. It is also designed to create a green cleaning program that protects human health and the environment.”

According to Green Seal, protecting human health and the environment is what green cleaning is all about. While GS-42 does require that green-certified and more environmentally responsible cleaning products and equipment be used, the scope of the standard goes beyond that to include the actual systems, methods, and processes involved in green cleaning.

Green cleaning has come quite a way since its beginnings during the 1990s. At that time, the Aberdeen Proving Ground (a U.S. military research and testing facility outside Washington, DC) approached Green Seal in response to an executive order from President Bill Clinton with a request for help in determining what makes a cleaning chemical safer and greener. As a result, in 2000 Green Seal released what is now called GS-37, a standard that certifies cleaning chemicals that help protect human health and the environment.

Then in 2002, the state of Pennsylvania asked Green Seal to assist them in developing an entire green building operation and maintenance strategy. Pennsylvania’s state government was one of the first large organizations to realize that having a green building meant more than just designing it as green or using green cleaning products.

“The state had specific reasons for having an effective green cleaning strategy in place,” says Susan Heaton, Director/National Accounts Development for Green Seal. “There are many [state owned] historic buildings in Pennsylvania. The state wanted us to help them identify protocols to clean those facilities in a sustainable way and also protect many historic and irreplaceable treasures contained within those buildings.”

As more facilities and organizations began to learn about the benefits of green cleaning and understand that it meant more than merely utilizing green cleaning chemicals, many in the cleaning industry realized that some sort of standard was necessary to define exactly what green cleaning means. Standard development for GS-42 began in 2005. Green Seal officially released the standard in 2006, and updated it in 2011.

Key Areas of the Standard
The GS-42 standard covers almost every aspect of professional BSC and in-house cleaning of commercial, public, and industrial buildings. A certified service must meet the standard in its entirety. To receive GS-42 certification, cleaning services must address a number of key areas including:

Planning: Cleaning service providers must develop and maintain written guidelines, or standard operating procedures, that govern cleaning procedures, chemical handling, equipment maintenance, communication, training, and inspection programs, as well as record-keeping procedures that make information available to all cleaning personnel and clients. Also, for each building cleaned by the service, a building-specific cleaning plan must be developed that takes into account the specific characteristics and use of the building and any vulnerable populations within it.

Products: All cleaning chemicals must be green-certified or designated as environmentally preferable by an independent party. Vacuum cleaners must meet the minimum standards of the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label program, while carpet extractors must have a “Bronze” Seal of Approval at a minimum. Floor machines must have vacuum systems or other devices that capture and collect airborne particulates, and these machines must operate at a sound level of no more than 70 decibels.

Procedures: “This is, of course, the most involved section of the standard,” says Heaton. “It includes such things as providing easy to understand directions for workers and documented training on how to properly use cleaning tools and equipment; how to implement effective and healthy cleaning processes and methods; how to track the amounts of chemicals used over time; how to properly use chemical dilution systems; directions as to how to recycle or properly dispose of used chemicals and equipment at the end of its life cycle; and how to reduce, minimize, or eliminate the need for cleaning chemicals, among other things.”

Today, more than 90 BSCs and other cleaning organizations have achieved GS-42 certification. The certification process is conducted via data submission through an online portal with the guidance of a dedicated project manager from Green Seal. The amount of time to certify a service can vary. “One of our certified services was extremely well prepared when they applied and they achieved certification within three months,” said Heaton.

Certification fees are tiered and are based on the annual revenue of the organization. Fees run from $4,900 to $7,500. Once certified, an annual license fee is required for the use of the trademarked Green Seal logo, and the service will go through regular monitoring to ensure that their program remains in compliance with the standard. Monitoring involves an on-site inspection of a portion of the facilities that are being cleaned by the certified cleaning program.

The Value Proposition
According to Heaton, in addition to setting certified BSCs apart from the competition, there are other benefits to GS-42 certification:

• Cost savings: Many BSCs are now finding that purchasing green-certified products and equipment actually leads to cost savings on chemicals and other products.
• Staff retention: Turnover in the professional cleaning industry is generally very high. BSCs and other cleaning services that have achieved Green Seal certification report enhanced staff retention and the ability to attract employees that are more qualified. An employee who feels valued and protected is more likely to be committed to the organization.
• Engaged employees: Cleaning staff who are part of a GS-42 program are educated regarding the importance of their role as it relates to keeping a facility clean and healthy—and staff who understand the value of their contribution tend to take greater pride in their work.
• Professionalism: The cleaning industry tends to attract employees with little experience, especially given the current economic conditions. Through the training required for compliance to the standard, Green Seal certification helps to increase the professionalism of the entire industry.

Is GS-42 for you? “Business owners have to determine that for themselves,” says Heaton. “Attaining certification is not easy, which is one thing that makes it such a valuable market differentiator. This is a leadership standard that is being pursued by leadership organizations.”

Just as the widespread adoption of green cleaning chemicals was customer-driven, building owners and facility managers will help to drive cleaning professionals toward more effective green cleaning strategies. “We have already seen this with the state of Pennsylvania,” she says. “It is just the natural progression of market transformation, and we see it spreading now throughout North America.”

*The original “Green Seal of Approval” was founded in 1989 to help safeguard the health of people and the planet. As an independent, science-based standards developer and certification body, Green Seal identifies products and services that are environmentally responsible and provides public education for creating a more sustainable world. Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor and a writer for the professional cleaning industry.


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