Green Cleaning OR Green Washing

There’s a move afoot in the cleaning industry to adopt green practices for the sake of protecting human health and the environment. A growing body of evidence links certain chemicals in cleaning products to health problems ranging from asthma and allergies, to attention disorders, even cancer. These research studies have caught the attention of the press, governmental groups, even celebrities. The green cleaning movement has been solely concentrated in the commercial and institutional sectors. 

Deirdre Imus has spear-headed a mission to green public schools, right down to the cleaning. Imus’ interest in green developed initially through her work with pediatric cancer patients but has expanded to her formal program for schools, Greening Your School, which places a major emphasis on the products used for cleaning. The US Green Building Council awards points toward LEED certification based on green cleaning practices (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a nationally recognized standard to rate buildings for their environmental responsibility, profitability and ability to offer a healthy setting for living and working). Another well know third-party certification organization is Green Seal Inc, a nonprofit based in Washington DC. Founded in 1989, Green Seal provides leadership standards based on environmental and human impact as well as performance, and certifies products and services against these standards. Green Seal uses internationally recognized methods and procedures, and has developed over 30 standards in a variety of sectors. Though, five of these standards focus on the cleaning industry, to cover cleaning supplies in addition to a comprehensive janitorial service standard.
Recently, however, green cleaning has infiltrated the residential sector. The first evidence of this appeared in the spring of 2007 when Maid Brigade, a national house cleaning franchise, developed a proprietary green cleaning certification program that the entire network of over 400 service locations was required to adopt.  “In advance of a widely recognized third party accreditation program, we developed our own residential cleaning certification, taking cues from Green Seal’s standard for janitorial services, and researched these guidelines in residential applications, over several months and in hundreds of homes. We had to be sure our green cleaning was safe and effective,” says Mary Ellen Hoffmann, the cleaning service’s Assistant Director of Training and author of the certification training materials. For a franchise to achieve Green Clean Certification® they must undergo training for themselves and their cleaning staffs, achieve a passing grade on certification exams, use cleaning solutions and equipment from a specified list of products that are Green Seal certified and distribute information to their customers to help educate them for when they inevitably clean between visits. “Our certification insures that all of our franchises are following standard operating guidelines that reflect the latest research and technology advances. We wanted to be certain our certification was relevant and meaningful in terms of its positive impact on our customers’ health and the environment. We’ve even tested our cleaning against competitors to measure the difference,” says Hoffmann.
Maid Brigade developed their internal standard because there currently is no third party certification. Initially Green Seal had no plans to develop a residential cleaning service certification. Now, just one year after Green Clean Certified was launched, Green Seal recently announced that the organization is in the early stages of development of GS-49, which will be the standard for residential cleaning and maid services. Green Seal does have an established standard for household cleaning products (GS-08) but green cleaning is an overarching principle that includes equipment and procedures, not merely cleaning solutions.  This new certification will fill a void in the residential green cleaning arena. Maid Brigade is participating on a review panel to assist Green Seal in writing this standard.
Other national cleaning services have begun to take notice and dabble in the green cleaning arena. The Cleaning Authority has recently announced that some of its franchise owners are in the process of converting over to Green Seal certified house cleaning chemicals, HEPA vacuums and micro fibers. The company did not specify which owners, or how many, would be making the conversion, and in what period of time.
The Maids has re-framed its 22-Step Healthy Touch® system as green cleaning, because of the health benefits associated with green cleaning. The Healthy Touch program has been a cornerstone of its marketing message since 1995. In fact, its program is geared toward allergy and asthma sufferers and The Maids uses 4-level filtration closed-canister vacuums that adhere to Green Seal’s standard for power equipment as specified in GS-42 for the commercial cleaning segment. The company touts use of “environmentally friendly” cleaning products but does not support the statement with any additional information in its marketing materials or on its website.
For the other national franchised cleaning brands, Merry Maids, Molly Maids and Maid Pro, green cleaning is not a part of the service offering at this time. Sheron Bates, speaking on behalf of the Merry Maids franchise in Pittsburgh, was quoted in April of 2007 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying the company hasn’t received many requests locally for eco-friendly cleaners. There is no mention on any of the three companies’ web sites about green cleaning or eco-friendly products.
The Association of Residential Cleaning Services International, an industry group founded to help house cleaning businesses grow and thrive, has added a session to their leadership series on green cleaning, to help its membership separate the facts from the myths that surround green cleaning. “As it currently stands in the industry there is conflicting information and research about what green cleaning really is and what are best practices. ARCSI is committed to working with partners and leaders in the industry to educate professionals in the home cleaning industry and recognize ‘green washing’. Consumers would be well served to be better educated, who are bombarded with both true and false claims in every media”, says Perry Phillips, founder and executive director of ARCSI.
To understand green washing we must start with the definition of green cleaning. According to The Ashkin Group, an international consulting group working to green the cleaning industry, green cleaning is defined as cleaning to protect health without harming the environment.
Green washing occurs when companies tout false or overly generous health or environmental benefits that their product or service offers. Green washing is not confined exclusively to the cleaning industry, but it is prevalent in large part because household cleaners are the only household products where manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Fragrances are a good example. They are considered trade secrets and thus their ingredients don’t have to be included on the packaging. The problem with synthetic fragrances is that they commonly include chemicals that have been linked with reproductive health and developmental problems such as birth defects, low sperm count and ADHD. But even at the most basic level, synthetic fragrances are known to trigger asthma and allergy attacks. 
When manufacturers can omit ingredients from packaging, it is hard for consumers to interpret false claims such as non-toxic, biodegradable and eco-friendly. These claims are so common that the Federal Trade Commission issued Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims in 1992. The FTC guidelines deem generic claims of “environmentally preferable”, “environmentally friendly”, or “earth smart” unacceptable without an accompanying explanation detailing the specific environmental requirements necessary to justify the claim. The last time the guides were updated was in 1998 and over the past ten years practically a whole new lexicon has emerged. The increasing use of environmental marketing has caused the FTC to look at updating the Guide ahead of schedule. The false and vague claims are rampant. 
TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company which oversees EcoLogo certification, released “The Six Sins of Green Washing” in December 2007, a study that found that 99% of over 1,000 randomly selected consumer products were guilty of green washing, through one or more of six basic offenses (see side bar): 

6 Sins of Greenwashing:
  1. Hidden Trade-offs
  2. Lack of Proof
  3. Vague Language
  4. Irrelevant Claims
  5. Inaccurate Claims
  6. Lesser of Two Evils
For more information visit:
“Six Sins of Greenwashing”

Emily Main, senior editor at National Geographic’s new earth-conscious publication Green Guide, warns against some common packaging terms that may be recognizable but baseless or hollow. “There are a couple of terms we really caution against,” Main says. “’Biodegradable,’ ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘natural’—these terms are meaningless. We recommend people look for what’s not in a cleaner instead. Look for labels that say things like ‘no chlorine bleach’ or ‘no synthetic fragrances or dyes.’ ”
Another misleading element is the inclusion of certain marketing terms that would generally connote green traits causing consumers to infer a product was healthier or more environmentally preferable. Certain popular products with words like “green”, “citrus”, “lemon” or “orange” in the name contain toxic chemicals like 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent that has been linked to blood damage and found to cause cancer in animal testing.
Also, look at the signal words on the product label. Cleaning products are required by law to include label warnings if harmful ingredients are included. From safest to most dangerous, the warning signals are:

Signal Word
Toxicity if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin*
One ounce to a pint may be harmful or fatal
One teaspoon to one ounce may be harmful or fatal
One taste to one teaspoon is fatal

 *for a 180-pound male
Even products with a cautionary label, it should be pointed out, may present health risks if used improperly or with repeated exposures over time. Good ventilation and skin barriers are very important when using any over-the-counter cleaning product. 
There are several household cleaning products that are green. Seventh Generation® and Method® are two brands that work effectively, are comparably priced and have specific, valid messaging to convey their green attributes to consumers. 
Finally, do an internet search for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for a product you use or are considering. The MSDS will specify the active ingredients, which can then be researched for health hazards. A useful site is the Household Products Database, found at
ME TOO-ism
An old adage states that imitation is the ultimate form of flattery. With green washing, imitation has no authenticity. Maid Brigade recently discovered a competing cleaning company in Pennsylvania had not only borrowed the trademarked term “Green Clean Certified” but also used the company’s branded certification icon on their web site.  That company is not Green Clean Certified, and if it has inappropriately “borrowed” concepts and graphics to appeal to a growing market, what other short cuts is it taking in an attempt to boost business? Beyond the copyright infringement liability, the imitator provided no explanation for how their chemicals met any certification standard. A second house cleaning company, based in San Francisco, copied text verbatim from Maid Brigade’s press kit to support their green stance and yet they use products that contain synthetic fragrances.
The problem here is that the typical consumer does not have enough information to distinguish truly green products and services from posers waging false claims. “There is so much conflicting information out there and, to compound the problem, the chemical research and information is so laden with scientific jargon that most consumers become confused or frustrated, or both,” says Cloud Conrad, VP of Marketing for Maid Brigade. The company developed a second website devoted solely to educating consumers about green cleaning and green living,
Generally consumers want one hundred percent confidence that their cleaning service is trustworthy, since they’re entering the home and contacting their possessions. But if a company is guilty of green washing, it is often an indication of a broader lack of integrity. Not only will those customers be missing out on the attainable green benefits of reduced health risks and environmental responsibility, but they may find themselves exposed to other risks, such as theft or illegal immigrants.
To help discern between green washing and legitimate green cleaning when choosing a green cleaning service, ask these 5 essential questions:
  1. Ask for a list of cleaning solutions the company uses. Are they recognized and/or certified by Green Seal or a similar, specific and tangible standard? If not, keep searching.
  2. What about the equipment? Do the vacuums have multi-level filtration systems with closed canisters to remove 99.9% of all pollen, pet dander, hair, mold, dust, dust mites and other respiratory irritants? These are common asthma and allergy triggers. The Carpet & Rug Institute certifies vacuums under its Green Label Program. Ask if the vacuums are certified through CRI. 
  3. Find out about the cleaning cloths - are the cleaning cloths re-useable? Do they reduce landfill waste or manufacturing processes? Do they include post-consumer recycled material or organically grown material? Does the service use color-coded cloths to avoid cross-contamination? Micro fiber is a sustainable material that lasts longer than traditional cotton cloths or paper towels. Its special scientific weave grabs and holds on to dirt and dust, requiring less cleaning chemicals to get the job done effectively.
  4. What about training? Does the staff undergo formal training and certification to properly use green products and procedures? If pre-determined green standard operating procedures are not adhered to then the recognized standards may not be met, and the green benefits can easily be compromised.
  5. Has the company conducted tests to substantiate the health and/or environmental impact of their system as compared to traditional cleaning methods? Ask for proof. Cleaning companies that are truly committed to protecting human health and the environment should be able to substantiate the benefits of their cleaning system with facts, not merely words.

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