Green cleaning is certainly not a new subject. All types of publications having anything to do with facility maintenance, management and indoor health have published articles on what green cleaning is and how it can help protect human health, improve worker productivity, reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment and promote sustainability.

Because it is no longer a new subject, I am often asked what the future is for green cleaning. Some things are obvious. For instance, not only are more and more conventional products being replaced with environmentally preferable alternatives; in many cases, professional cleaning chemical manufacturers are now on their second, third, fourth or even fifth new version of certain green cleaning products. As manufacturers better understand what makes a product green, they have developed new technologies that have helped make these products more effective and affordable.

Another step in the evolution of green cleaning is the development of more cleaning equipment that helps protect the environment. Low-moisture carpet extractors are an example of this. They use less water and chemicals than conventional machines and help carpets dry faster, preventing the growth of mold and mildew—all environmental attributes. At one time, only a few equipment manufacturers produced these machines. Now most have developed low-moisture extractors, and for some, that is the only type of extractor they manufacture. Similar advances have been made for hard-surface floor care equipment.

Even with these advances, I believe the real future in green cleaning is not just new chemicals or equipment, but people. The future of green cleaning is the use of these cleaning products by custodial workers (along with support by building managers and users) who believe in environmentally preferable cleaning, know that it is critical to the overall health of the facilities they maintain, and know that it contributes to a healthier, more sustainable planet.


A Green Cleaning Culture

A brief timeline of some of the major events in the history of green cleaning.
Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson is published; it questioned the use of DDT, a pesticide, without recognizing the environmental effects of the product on humans and wildlife.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is formed.
The use of DDT as a pesticide is banned in the United States.
CFCs are banned from aerosol cans due to their effect on ozone depletion.
Several products for the consumer and the professional cleaner are released bearing the label “environmentally friendly.” However, there are no regulations or criteria in place for measuring or verifying this claim.
Green Seal, an independent not-for-profit body for developing certifications and standards for environmentally friendly products, is formed.
President Bill Clinton signs executive order 13101 defining “green cleaning.” His order is the first step in the U.S. federal government and other government bodies going green.
The Environmental Choice Program to help create standards for green products is formed.
Bill Clinton signs executive order 13148, expanding the scope of executive order 13101.
Washington becomes the first state to enact green building legislation—an environmentally responsible method for designing, operating, maintaining and demolishing buildings and structures.
New York requires the use of green products in all public and private schools.
The term “greenwashing” is used to describe marketing techniques that imply a product is protective of the environment when it really is not. The term actually dates back to the 1990s, when it originally referred to the habit of some manufacturers to whitewash practices that were harmful to the environment.
LEED credits are given for the use of environmentally preferable cleaning products; this is soon changed to require the use of green cleaning products for any facility seeking LEED certification.
While the EPA’s Design for the Environment Program dates back to the early 1990s, it is not until now that it begins to have a significant impact on the professional cleaning industry.
While the EPA’s Design for the Environment Program dates back to the early 1990s, it is not until now that it begins to have a significant impact on the professional cleaning industry.
LEED v4 places a much greater emphasis on using disinfectants only when necessary; recognizes that green cleaning involves more than just products but cleaning practices and processes as well; recognizes only specific green certification organizations when identifying green cleaning products.

Anyone who gives presentations on a regular basis learns a few things about doing so. One is that every audience is different. Second, you know when an audience is absorbed and interested in what you are discussing and when it is not. And third, you know when you say something that resonates with your audience.

I had such an experience about three years ago when I said that we must take steps to create a “culture of sustainability.” While the term “culture” has many uses and definitions, in this case it refers to the values, traits, preferable behaviors, thoughts and mores of a society.

When it comes to a culture of sustainability, it means everyone in the facility—cleaning workers, staff, clients, building users, vendors—believes being sustainable is preferable behavior. They realize they all can and should play a part in reducing the use of natural resources, even if it is just by turning off unneeded lights.

As a culture of sustainability evolves in North America and many other parts of the world, so too does a culture of green cleaning. Whereas custodial workers and facility managers had to be enticed to select green cleaning products five or ten years ago, now they are looking for environmentally preferable products first, and they are selecting conventional items only if a green product does not exist, is cost-prohibitive or a poor performer.


Fostering the Green Cleaning Culture

However, cultures don’t just happen. In order to build a green cleaning culture and to ensure that the future of green cleaning is people, education by experienced and effective trainers is necessary, especially for custodial workers. These workers are the future leaders in the sustainability movement when it comes to facility management and maintenance.

The following are some suggestions on how to make this training all the more effective:

Emphasize the benefits of using green cleaning products.

Most studies still list janitorial work as one of the most dangerous occupations. While there are many reasons for this, injuries due to the use of certain conventional cleaning products are a key problem. Knowing that environmentally preferable cleaning products are designed to protect the health of the cleaning worker is the first step in adoption of these products and building the foundation of a green cleaning culture.

Respect how people learn.

While people in some professions may find sitting in a classroom setting the most effective learning environment, this is often not true for cleaning workers. Cleaning workers typically learn more effectively with hands-on training.

Teach the processes of green cleaning.

Green cleaning is far more than just using environmentally preferable cleaning products. There is a process including such things as:

  • Fully understanding the overall green cleaning program implemented for the specific facility involved;
  • Understanding how to safely handle and track cleaning chemicals;
  • Implementing equipment maintenance and operation procedures; and
  • Reporting and record keeping.

Request feedback.

Requesting feedback from custodial workers is critical because it helps make them part of the green cleaning program. Listening to their questions and concerns helps custodial workers own the program, a requirement for the formation of a culture.

Reinforce and review.

As with most effective training programs, understanding and implementing a green cleaning program requires that the program be ongoing, reviewed, trained and retrained. Further, there may be some un-training required as well; cleaning workers, like other workers, have a tendency to drift back to old habits and ways of doing things.


Custodial workers were earlier referred to as the future leaders in the green cleaning movement who will help to create a green cleaning culture. However, they cannot do this alone. Years ago when facilities were just considering transferring to green cleaning, one of the key steps I taught was the importance of getting all the facility’s stakeholders—from building owners and managers to vendors delivering packages to the facility—involved in the process.

 As to the establishment of a green cleaning culture, getting each one of these stakeholders onboard is all the more important. While the emphasis of our discussion here has been on training the cleaning worker, in order for a green cleaning culture to evolve and be effective, everyone must join in and become active supporters.