The Learning Requirement of Green Cleaning


By Robert Kravitz, The Ashkin Group, for Clean China

According to Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group and long considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” today it has become relatively easy to switch from conventional cleaning products. Further, in most cases the Green cleaning products will be delivered by the same jansan distributor and in similar containers and packaging as the old products. All of which leads cleaning workers and facility managers to assume Green cleaning products are the same as conventional cleaning products; they are just environmentally preferable.

This is often not the case, however, and making such an assumption can lead to very bad consequences. For example:

In 2005, a Chicago-area (US) senior center* decided it was time to transfer from conventional to Green cleaning products. This decision was the result of more and more studies indicating that conventional cleaning products, although they have served us well for decades, have the potential of harming human health and negatively impacting the environment. Further, those most at risk were, more often than not, children and older people.

Accordingly, the housekeeping department stopped purchasing traditional cleaning chemicals and switched to products that had been either Green-certified or recognized as meeting those specific criteria and standards indicating they had a reduced impact on health and the environment.

But what happened next was unexpected. Instead of protecting the health of the seniors living in the center, many soon started complaining of allergies and headaches shortly after the new environmentally preferable cleaning products were employed. In time, some of the housekeeping staff as well began complaining about the new products. Some said the products caused skin irritation. Others, just like the seniors using the facility, said they started sneezing and experiencing headaches as well as watery eyes about an hour after starting their cleaning duties…problems that dissipated about an hour after they left the building.

Surely something was awry and many in the housekeeping department believed the facility managers should have left “good enough alone” and return to the non-Green cleaning products used before. However, the managers were reluctant to make the change without further investigation, which proved to be a wise move. The investigation revealed that although the Green cleaning chemicals looked similar to the conventional chemicals used before, the cleaning workers were under the false impression that they would not be as effective as the conventional cleaning products used before and  did not follow proper dilution procedures, mixing the products with far less water than recommended by the manufacturer.

Additionally, again making the assumption the Green cleaning chemicals were less effective than traditional chemicals, the cleaning workers “oversprayed” and coated surfaces and fixtures to be cleaned with the new Green chemicals. Far too much chemical was being used, and cleaning cloths quickly became saturated, their ability to absorb and remove moisture and chemical from surfaces and fixtures diminishing just as quickly.

“Although replacing the old cleaning chemicals with new, Green ones is easy,” says Ashkin, “it can be difficult achieving our intended goal of protecting human health while also reducing cleaning’s impact on the environment. This experience (in the senior center) tells us just how important proper training is when transferring to Green cleaning products. Transferring to Green cleaning is a part of a step-by-step process, and one of the first and most important steps necessary is proper training.”

Addressing Misconceptions

Before beginning our discussion of the need for proper training when using Green cleaning products and chemicals, some misconceptions about the products must be cleared up, especially those raised by the case study just presented. First of all, it must be admitted that some of the early Green cleaning products introduced into the professional cleaning industry, ten or more years ago, did not meet the performance standards of the conventional cleaning products they were designed to replace.

“However, the technology has improved dramatically in recent years and continues to do so,” says Ashkin. “I cannot speak for all Green cleaning products but most of the products made by leading and reputable manufacturers perform as well as, if not better than, their conventional alternatives.”

But Ashkin also warns that clarifying this misconception often results in creating another misconception, and that is that all Green cleaning chemicals are alike as far as performance. “This is not true. It’s just as with conventional cleaning products. Some work better than others. Some are better suited for some surfaces than others. Managers and users must test the product to see which works best for them in their facilities.”

Training Challenges

In our earlier case study, it is clear the cleaning workers using the new Green cleaning products were not properly trained on their use and application as well as Green cleaning procedures overall. They made assumptions that proved wrong, the products were not used properly, and even the fact that they sprayed the surface to be cleaned instead of the cleaning cloth, which is the recommended proceedure, indicates they were using the products incorrectly–all of which caused or contributed to the allergic reactions reported by them as well as the seniors.

However, getting proper training on using Green cleaning products can be a challenge. Often the vendor or jansan distributor will offer to provide some training on use of the new Green chemicals, and this is typically the best way to teach cleaning workers not only the proper use of Green cleaning products, but the preferred Green cleaning procedures as well. But while there are many distributors and salespeople around the globe who sincerely want their customers to use the products they sell correctly and effectively, we must remember the job of a salesperson is to sell products, not necessarily train the people who will be using them. As a result, they may view training as time taken away from selling, “providing only the preliminary ‘nuts and bolts’ of using the products, but lacking true training as to use of the product,” says Ashkin.

Some distributors and salespeople are provided rather cursory training themselves on the use of Green cleaning products. Often their training material is developed by the marketing department of the manufacturer, which means it may be designed more to help the salesperson sell the product and not necessarily to use it. Additionally, teaching is a skill. Some people have it, some learn it, others as sincere and earnest as they may be, are simply not educators. The result: proper training is once again lacking.

In other situations, manufacturers provide information packets for end users on how to use the Green cleaning products. Once again, these are often prepared by marketing personnel, many of whom have never used the products at all and are just aware of the products’ Green features and benefits. The problem is, of course, those features and benefits can be lost if not accompanied by proper training.

Finding a Trainer

There is an old expression often heard in North America, which is probably very similar to an expression in China and other parts of Asia, and that is, “If you search, you will find.” It may be difficult to find someone to train cleaning workers on the proper use of Green cleaning chemicals, “but it is far from impossible,” says Ashkin.

Here are some of Ashkin’s suggestions on finding a vendor who will provide adequate training on Green cleaning products and procedures:

  • Look for someone willing to walk through the entire facility and evaluate the location’s current cleaning needs and procedures. This will allow the vendor to suggest the Green cleaning products and methods that may be most effective in your facility.
  • Ask to see the vendor’s training materials. If they are glossy with lots of pictures and promotion of the product, what you have is marketing material, not training material. Training material does not have to be dry, but it is usually more formally presented, often providing step-by-step procedures. Also ensure the training material is written in the language of the people who will be using the products.
  • Ask the vendor if he or she has taught cleaning professionals on how to use the new Green products. Try to determine if this person has the experience and skills necessarily to provide proper training.
  • Ask the vendor to provide a pre- and posttest of the training material. This will help determine the effectiveness of the training program and will also determine where more training may be necessary.

“Also, look for a vendor that provides training beyond Green cleaning,” says Ashkin. “For example, training cleaning workers on ways to reduce consumption, energy, fuel, and water make them (cleaning workers) feel more important to the facility while helping building owners reduce consumption, be more environmentally responsible, and cut costs as well.”

Taken together, Green-certified products, proper training, and education that debunks the myths of Green cleaning result in a Green cleaning program that achieves its goals: thorough cleaning of a facility with less impact on the environment.

Robert Kravitz is a writer for The Ashkin Group and the professional cleaning industry.  He may be reached at

*In the United States, as in China, a senior center is typically a place where seniors in the local community can gather for socialization, fitness, and support. These centers rarely provide housing for the seniors.