Green Cleaning Advocates Scrub Away at Greenwashing

By Paula Melton
This article originally appeared on GreenSource and

GreenwashingIn the cleaning industry, dirt, germs, mold, and scum are the enemy. But for green cleaning advocates, another foe tops the most-wanted list: greenwashing. According to green cleaning consultant Steve Ashkin, president of the Ashkin Group and a driving force behind the addition of green cleaning to LEED for Existing Buildings, 2010 was a banner year. With certifying bodies paying more attention than ever, a standardized label in the works, and new guidelines from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Ashkin says, the future of green cleaning positively sparkles.

LEED green cleaning revisions

While it’s common to grouse about the legalistic details of certain green building rating systems, Ashkin wholly embraces them, arguing that they effectively use market principles to advance change.

Pointing to the resources that go into developing and marketing new cleaning products, Ashkin says that LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) has provided a “road map” for manufacturers, helping them develop specific product goals and giving them confidence that “they should spend that really valuable R&D money on green products.”

Revisions to LEED-EBOM will focus on “ensuring the true intent of credits is being met” by increasing the percentage of green products that must be purchased and adding “more compliance paths” to spur competition among manufacturers. He is also hoping for changes to LEED-EBOM that will emphasize worker training, since green cleaning standards “affect literally millions working in buildings as janitors or food service workers.

UL acquisition of TerraChoice

Ashkin also sees transformative potential in the acquisition of TerraChoice and its EcoLogo environmental certification mark by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), whose safety certification mark is ubiquitous on electronics, tools, and equipment, and whose newer UL Environment unit has been setting standards for green products such as drywall.

“UL is so big and has so much knowledge about standard-setting, product evaluation, and product certification,” says Ashkin. “This is a game-changer.” He hopes UL’s involvement will make label standardization more scientific and less confusing for both manufacturers and purchasers.

Ecoform Label

Ashkin isn’t sitting back and waiting for that to happen on its own, though. Working with environmental marketing consultant Ecoform and big players in the cleaning industry (half cleaning product manufacturers and half purchasers, such as Wal-Mart, the State of California, and others), Ashkin is helping spearhead the development of an Information-Based Environmental Label (IBEL) specific to green cleaning.

With more than 200 manufacturers of cleaning products offering third-party-certified cleaning products, green has become the norm, he says. But since most of these products are certified on a pass-fail basis, there is no clear way to tell them apart. With a pass-fail system, he explained, you make it more difficult for purchasers to make educated choices, and remove the incentive to develop greener products since there is no established way to market them.
While the IBEL is still in the early stages, Ashkin is “hoping it will be an on-package label like a food nutrition label.” Because he works primarily within the commercial cleaning industry, though, the “label” could be more like a data sheet about the product’s components. The program will also include a searchable database where purchasers can prioritize by categories like child health, carcinogens, or VOCs.

FTC guidelines for environmental marketing

Clarity from the FTC about environmental labeling should shed some light on green labeling standards as well. While we often think of greenwashing as intentionally misleading—and, often enough, it is—in many cases, standards simply have not been developed, says Ashkin. The FTC’s new Part 260 guidance helps define terms sometimes found on packaging like “biodegradable,” “compostable,” “recyclable,” and “ozone safe,” making the labeling process more scientific for both manufacturers and consumers.


While the economy has muted the growth of many building-related industries, Ashkin has high hopes for green cleaning—which is often touted by green cleaning advocates as a way to increase productivity and decrease workplace absenteeism by boosting indoor air quality.

“People are starting to understand things they can do environmentally that are also good for the bottom line,” Ashkin says. “Whatever political winds are blowing, we can start making a substantial difference in what happens on our planet. Our time has come.”