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How Green Cleaning Chemicals Have Improved Through The Years

How Green Cleaning Chemicals Have Improved Through The Years

Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 and forever changed how the world thinks of cellphone technology. Now, everything from email to real-time traffic information is at people’s fingertips at all times.

Despite the benefits of switching to a smartphone, however, there are still holdouts who refuse to let go of their antiquated flip phones or old-school Blackberries.

The same thing is happening with cleaning chemicals, experts say. Although 95 percent of building service contractors use at least a few green products, according to Contracting Profits’ “2017 BSC Market Report,” there are still plenty of naysayers who won’t ditch traditional chemicals.

“It’s like trying to run a business with a rotary phone in the 21st Century,” says Dave Thompson, director of corporate education for Green Clean Institute and director of education for GEM Supply, Orlando, Florida.

BSCs who refuse to go green often say the products don’t work as well as and are much more expensive than traditional chemicals. Those excuses, experts say, are based on outdated perceptions.

“I see it everyday: BSCs still stuck in doing things the way we did it 25 years ago,” says Thompson. “Back then, the chemicals were too expensive and didn’t always work, but that’s not what is going on now. They’re relying on feelings from decades ago to make their judgements today.”

For BSCs still resisting green cleaning, it’s time to take another look at environmentally friendly chemicals.

The Early Days

Green became a buzzword in the United States in the 1980s. At that time, manufacturers of cleaning products began offering environmentally friendly alternatives, typically at a higher price tag than traditional options.

Sometimes the price difference was needed to offset the research-and-development costs of new ingredients. Other times, however, manufacturers priced their eco-friendly lines higher because they believed the products appealed to niche buyers who’d pay a premium.

“The industry saw it as a cash cow and set a price the market would bear,” says Thompson. “We did it to ourselves. We overcharged for the green products because they filled a need. The problem is, there was pushback from it.”

Some manufacturers also saw their own green lines as competitive and threatening to their traditional products.

“Some had the philosophy, ‘If we’re going to push this other product, we’re going to keep it separate and price it higher,’” says Charles Moody, president of Solutex, Sterling, Virginia, which earned the Safer Choice U.S. EPA Partner of the Year award for the last three years. “It dis-incentivized people from changing from the established formula.”

To compound the early problems, the earliest green chemicals often didn’t work as well as traditional chemicals. Many manufacturers considered green a fad and rushed products, hoping to cash in before it passed.

“They didn’t take time to get the formulations correct or strong enough,” says Moody.

In those early days, “green chemistry” training didn’t exist. Rather than creating new formulations with safe ingredients, scientists tried substituting safer chemicals for toxic ones in existing formulas, says Roger McFadden, an industry consultant and green chemist. This often made the products less effective and helped earn green chemicals a bad reputation.

There also weren’t many third-party certifications at that point, and those that existed often didn’t have rigorous performance requirements, says McFadden.

Green Seal, EPA’s Safer Choice, Help Improve Trust In Green

In the 1990s, it became clear green was more than just a trendy buzzword and big brands realized green cleaning chemicals could have mass appeal.

“Initially it was fairly small brands that went to market with green cleaning products,” says McFadden. “When the bigger brands entered the cleaning space, that changed the game. They had to spend time figuring out how to improve price and performance.”

The EPA helped the cause by creating its Safer Chemical Ingredients List (SCIL) in the late 1990s. SCIL allows chemists to easily find better alternatives for their formulations.

“The focus on removing bad chemicals is being replaced with identifying good chemicals,” says McFadden. “Let’s find a way to take the chemicals that don’t have hazardous characteristics and formulate them into cleaning products. That’s a huge transformation.”

By the early 2000s, certifiers of green products began instituting stricter performance requirements and buyers began paying more attention to their labels. Manufacturers worked harder to ensure their products passed muster.

Third-party labels such as Green Seal, UL Environment and the EPA’s Safer Choice have grown from only a handful of certified products to more than 2,000 on each list.

Also, scientists were now better educated. Major universities offered graduate degrees in green chemistry and required chemistry undergrads to take courses in toxicology.

“There’s a bigger, broader portfolio for BSCs to choose from than there was 25 years ago,” says McFadden. “There’s been a huge evolution in chemistry. This isn’t a marketing ploy. There’s real evidence the products work better.”

As green cleaning products improved, consumer interest grew. To reach a broader buying base, however, companies had to reconsider their marketing tactics.

“Companies realized targeting green purchasers and adding a premium wouldn’t fly anymore,” says Mark Petruzzi, senior vice president of outreach and strategic relations for Green Seal, Washington, D.C. “There’s no more room to charge more just because a product is green.”

Overcoming Skepticism Of Eco-friendly Cleaning Products

Today’s green products are as, or more, effective than their traditional counterparts, experts agree, and priced just as competitively. So why are so many users still skeptical?

“I walked into see a property manager one day, and I made the wrong assumption that she’d care about green,” says Moody. “She said, ‘If it’s green I’m not interested. That green stuff doesn’t work. I want the good, strong stuff.’”

Moody believes many BSCs tried an early, less effective green cleaner and wrote the entire product category off for good.

Even those who tried eco-friendly products more recently may have had a bad experience, says Petruzzi.

“Personal preference feeds into it,” he says. “You may have to buy three or four brands to find one that’s acceptable to you. If you bought something and were disappointed with it, that’s not something that’s unique to green products. We’ve all bought things we didn’t like and don’t write the entire category off. We sometimes paint green products into too narrow of a corner based on a single bad experience.”

And while the price of most environmentally preferable chemicals rivals that of traditional products, there may be cases where going green will cost more “green.” But then, it’s important to consider the entire life-cycle cost of the green option and not just the price tag.

For example, a green chemical that replaces one that requires goggles or respirators offers a savings on personal protective equipment. A much larger cost savings can come in the form of reduced risk of injury to workers.

“About 6 percent of professional janitorial workers are injured by the cleaning products they use,” says McFadden. “If we could reduce that substantially, then we reduce the overall costs, because companies pay for those injuries in medical costs or replacement workers.”

Protecting employee health is the No. 1 reason BSCs should switch to green chemicals, according to everyone interviewed for this story.

“Without employees, a building service contractor has no business,” says Thompson. “The cost of a chemical is nothing compared to the cost of a lost day from an employee. If you want to be in business for a long time, your employees need to be your top concern. If a product or process protects their health, that’s feeding the bottom line.”

Another reason to reconsider green cleaning chemicals? More facility executives are looking for BSCs who use the products. Remaining a naysayer could cost BSCs new business.

“We get calls from BSCs we’ve never worked with saying the buildings they’re bidding on are asking for these products,” says Moody. “Contractors will be doing themselves a good service to be looking for things that work that are safer. It makes sense to revisit it.”

It’s time to take another look at green, says McFadden, because there have been major advancements in the chemistry behind the products in the last two decades. Today, the products are just like any other on the shelf.

“Can you say all green cleaning products perform well? No. But can you say all traditional cleaning products perform well? No,” says McFaddon. “There are hundreds of green formulations that perform equal to, or better than, the traditional chemicals they replaced. Some work better than others, just like traditional cleaning product portfolios.”

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