An Interview with Stephen Ashkin: How the Father of Green Cleaning Came to Be

Many people know Stephen Ashkin as the “father of Green Cleaning” in the professional cleaning industry. But what they don’t know is just how many years it took him to earn this title and why he is considered the leader in the Green Cleaning movement not only in North America but in many other parts of the world as well.

Today, Steve is the 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 and author of their new Greener Cleaning Playbook, written to help sports venues operate their facilities in a Greener and more sustainable manner.

We checked with Steve to learn more about the man and better understand his passion for Green Cleaning and sustainability. What follows are some of the questions we asked him along with his answers.

How did you get into the professional cleaning industry?

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?

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 as well as 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 users, and the environment.

Is this about when you started advocating the use of Green Cleaning products?

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 that the professional cleaning industry needed safer cleaning products that performed well but [were] less harmful to the environment.

What were the next steps on your journey?

I went to work for another chemical manufacturer but one that 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.

I left this company and then 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 explaining to people why we need safer cleaning products and the many benefits that would be derived. From here, I am happy to say, the rest is history. For many years I was about the only person advocating for the use of Green Cleaning products and while there certainly were difficult periods and many naysayers, I am proud to say that today, the industry has finally realized the many health benefits and reasons for environmentally preferable cleaning products.

What is your biggest “Green” venture right now?

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 sporting 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 follow suit.