What is Green Cleaning and Why is it Important for Your Business?

Business Sustainability

You would be surprise at how many times I’ve walked into the offices of companies that are working hard to be sustainable – they’re innovative in everything from their business model to energy efficiency – yet when we look at their cleaning products, we find that they’re still using toxic, mainstream products.

Though often overlooked, the cleaning products that are used at your business are affecting the health of your employees, the cleaning staff, and visitors to your office. The chemicals found in common cleaning products can have many negative impacts, including contributing to asthma, cancer, and increased birth defects, according to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Cleaning Supplies and Your Health.

How significant can the change to green cleaning products be for people? Consider this bit of feedback that I received from a school that I worked with:

We have completed the process of switching over our cleaning supplies and clearing out the custodial closets. I have heard great feedback from the custodians about the new products! One custodian said she used to always get a rash from the other products and she has seen that go away since we switched.” ~Andra Yeghoian, Director of Sustainability, Bishop O’Dowd High School

Don’t underestimate the impact that removing toxic products can have on the improving people’s health!

Evaluating Cleaning Products

what is green cleaningGreen cleaning is the process of choosing cleaning products that are better for both people and the planet.

Switching to green cleaning products is good for the health and wellbeing of your people, and it also prevents unnecessary chemicals from being released into the environment.

In an ideal world, we would easily be able to tell which products are toxic and which ones are better for people and the environment. In the real world, though, assessing cleaning products so that you can make good decisions is not always easy.

The challenge is largely due to two main reasons:

  1. Greenwashing is rampant in this field. Countless products have vague marketing terms such as “eco-friendly” or “natural.”  These are so meaningless that even the FTC has issued guidance against making general environmental benefits claims.
  2. To fully evaluate a product, you need to know all of the ingredients and how they might interact with each other. Many companies do not fully disclose their ingredients, which makes evaluation about the health and environmental impacts difficult. Even if the company did disclose all ingredients, you would have to be knowledgeable about the chemicals to understand how they interact.

This is why it’s better to look at independent, third-party data when making decisions about the green cleaning products that you should use.

The Green Business Program requires the use of cleaning products that have either a third-party certification (commonly found on institutional cleaning products) or a rating of 8.1 on Goodguide (useful for consumer products). These are good guidelines for all businesses to use.

The most common third-party certifications are:

  1. Green Seal – the original green cleaning certification, which has been in use since 1989. Green Seal certification includes an evaluation of the entire life cycle of the product, and meets independent, international standards.
  2. Safer Choice – the EPA’s own certification that ensures that products “contain only the safest possible ingredients.”
  3. Ecologo – a certification issued by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a company with over 100 years experience in developing safety standards.

Both Green Seal and UL are members of the Global Ecolabel Network, an international nonprofit organization that works with certifying organizations to ensure that certification standards are published and transparent, that they address multiple environmental criteria, and that they look at the life cycle of a product.

For products that don’t have a third-party certification, two reputable resources are:

  1. Goodguide – a database of over 210,000 personal care and household products that are rated according to health, environment, and society. Goodguide was started by a UC Berkeley professor in 2007 and acquired by UL in 2011.
  2. Environmental Working Group (EWG) – a nonprofit organization that provides a comprehensive Guide to Healthy Cleaning that rates more than 2,000 products based on containing ingredients that are known to cause health problems ranging from asthma to cancer.

Are Green Cleaning Products More Expensive?

This is an understandable concern for many businesses.

The good news is that green cleaning products don’t have to be more expensive. Prices have come down a lot, and many green cleaning products such as Method, Seventh Generation, and Clorox Green Works can be found at places like Safeway, Target, and Costco for almost the same price as conventional products.

Here are four common purchasing strategies that businesses I’ve worked with have used to keep costs down:

  1. Buying in bulk – buying products in bulk will save you both time and money.
  2. Streamlining purchases – when I work with businesses and look at their cleaning products, I find that often there are unnecessary products. Most businesses need just an all-purpose cleaner and a bathroom cleaner, so reducing your purchasing to eliminate unnecessary items will help to reduce costs.
  3. Buying concentrated products – many institutional cleaning products and some consumer products are available in concentrated versions, which might cost a bit more up front, but will save money in the long run (while also reducing the negative environmental impacts of packaging).
  4. Centralizing purchasing – when we evaluate cleaning products, businesses sometimes find that they have more than they need because different people are purchasing products; centralizing purchasing so that it’s only being handled by one or two people helps to avoid unnecessary or duplicate purchases.

Lastly, some smaller businesses have chosen to stop purchasing cleaning products altogether and just make their own, which can be easily done with vinegar and baking soda in many cases.

Switching to Green Cleaning Products

You’ll need to start by taking an inventory of your current cleaning products.

Look anywhere where cleaning products might be stored: beneath the sink in the employee kitchen, in the bathrooms, in custodial closets, and in storage areas. Ask the person in charge of purchasing what products are being ordered. If you’re working with a custodial service that doesn’t store products on site, ask them to provide a list of the products that they are currently using.

Once you have your list, review it to see which ones already meet the criteria above. Do they have a third-party certification? Are they rated highly on Goodguide or EWG? If so, then you’re all set!

If they don’t meet the criteria above, you’ll need to look for alternatives. If you’re working with a custodial service, ask them to provide you with a list of third-party certified alternatives that you can review and choose from.

If you’re not working with a custodial service, here’s a quick list of alternatives to commonly used products:

Instead of Try
Windex Glass cleaners from Method, ECOS, Seventh Generation, or Clorox Green Works or make your own with water and vinegar
Comet, Ajax Bon Ami
Pine-Sol Floor cleaners from Mrs. Meyers, Method, Seventh Generation, Clorox Green Works
409, Simple Green All-purpose cleaners from Mrs. Meyers, Method, Seventh Generation, Clorox Green Works
Glade Non-aerosol air fresheners from Method or Mrs. Meyers
Pledge Method wood cleaner

I recommend always checking with your existing vendor, or wherever you currently purchase your products, first to see if they have a green cleaning product that you can switch to. In many cases, they’ll carry either some of the brands above or their own brand (Staples, for example, has their own line of products that are certified through both Safer Choice and Green Seal).

Note that I haven’t tried all of the items above and can’t endorse them. This list is a starting point of some commonly available alternatives to mainstream products based upon the choices made by many of the businesses I’ve worked with. I recommend that you try different products until you find the one that works for you.

Next Steps

Take an inventory of the current cleaning products that you’re using. Once you know what products you have, check to see if they have either a third-party certification or a high rating on Goodguide and EWG. If not, look for alternatives.

Also, engage employees: this is a great project for your green team to work on and you can share the resources above, especially the Goodguide and Environmental Working Group, as resources that employees can use at home.