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Becoming the ‘Father of Green Cleaning’ - An interview with Stephen Ashkin

Written by  Robert Kravitz

Stephen Ashkin Img
Photo by Mathilda Tennysdotter

Many people in the building service industry know Stephen Ashkin as the “Father of Green Cleaning.” But what they don’t know is just how many years it took him to earn this title and why he is considered such a leader in the green cleaning movement, not only in North America, but around the world.

Today, Ashkin is one of green cleaning’s foremost experts and advocates. In addition to being the author of several books on the subject, he also works with multiple companies and organizations dedicated to advancing green cleaning across various industry sectors. He’s president of The Ashkin Group; executive director of the Green Cleaning Network; cofounder of Green Cleaning University; coauthor of the book Green Cleaning for Dummies; and a board member of the Green Sports Alliance as well as author of the organization’s new Greener Cleaning Playbook, which he wrote to help sports venues operate their facilities in a greener and more sustainable manner. When it comes to green cleaning, you’ll find Ashkin’s fingerprints are everywhere.

Green Clean Team
Attendees of the fifth annual Green Sports Alliance, held last June in Chicago, met to increase awareness of green practices in the sports industry. Photo by Gerber+Scarpelli Photography

We chatted with Ashkin to learn more about his background and better understand what drives his passion for green cleaning and sustainability.

How did you get into the professional cleaning industry?
Stephen Ashkin: My family owned a chemical manufacturing business in Indiana, so I literally grew up with the business. I did everything from sweep the floors to help with production, operations, sales, and marketing.

What first got you interested in green cleaning?
SA: In the early 1990s, I met Dr. Michael Berry, who then worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and would soon write one of the “Bibles” of our industry, Protecting the Built Environment: Cleaning for Health. Reading his book and attending his presentations inspired me considerably. That’s when I first learned how closely tied cleaning is to protecting human health. However, it is also when I started realizing that many of the ingredients used in cleaning solutions, especially at that time, could be very detrimental to the health of the user, building occupants, and the environment.

Is this about when you started advocating the use of green cleaning products?
SA: Not quite. I went to work for a company that is still today one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the U.S. And while there, that company purchased another cleaning chemical manufacturer that made a line of what would then be termed “green” or more environmentally responsible cleaning solutions. I became directly involved with this new acquisition. In many ways, it was a gift for me because I immediately realized this resonated with my personal beliefs and values, and the professional cleaning industry needed safer cleaning products that performed well, but were less harmful to the environment.

Mop and Bucket
Ashkin speaks with cleaning staff at a shopping center in Los Angeles.
Photo by Mathilda Tennysdotter

What were the next steps on your journey?
SA: I went to work for another chemical manufacturer, but this one focused on manufacturing green cleaning solutions for residential use. I was directly involved in product development, and we worked to make our products some of the most environmentally responsible available at the time. It was also at this time that I got involved with helping to develop product standards, which would later become what we call today certification programs. I realized, especially in the 1990s, there was a lot of confusion as to what is and is not a green cleaning product. Certification programs would, I believed, help end this confusion.

How did you end up running your own business?
SA: After leaving the green chemical manufacturer, I started my own consulting company. By giving presentations on radio, at ISSA tradeshows, before contract cleaners and distributors, and at facility management tradeshows, I started spreading the message about why we need safer cleaning products and the many benefits that could be derived from using them. From here, I am happy to say, the rest is history. For many years, I was about the only person advocating the use of green cleaning products. But even though there were difficult periods and many naysayers, I am proud to say that today, the industry has finally realized the numerous advantages that result from switching to environmentally preferable cleaning products.

What is your biggest green venture right now?
SA: Without question, being a board member of the Green Sports Alliance has been exceptionally rewarding. The Alliance believes, and I strongly concur, that if we can get professional sports greener and more sustainable, this will spread throughout the country and throughout the world. The sports industry is one of the largest and most powerful industries in the world. When they do something—like going green— everyone takes notice and many people, businesses, and organizations will undoubtedly follow suit.


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