What Makes It Green?

For some industries and product categories, the answer is verifiable
By Robert Kravitz
September 24, 2010

Having just remodeled her apartment, a homeowner was looking for a new cleaning service to maintain the totally revamped space. The three services she interviewed all outlined what they would do, when they would be available, and what they would charge. They also mentioned that if requested they would use only “green” cleaning products to perform their duties.

The apartment owner reviewed their proposals, asked a few questions, thanked each vendor for their time and told them she would make her decision in the next couple of days. However, with the last cleaning service vendor, she asked a question that had long been on her mind. Because this service also said it would use green cleaning products, she asked what a green cleaning product is. In other words, what makes it “green”?

The vendor smiled and simply said that the products contained “all-natural ingredients,” and that’s what made them healthier and safer to use. But this is not an accurate answer. After all, arsenic is an “all-natural ingredient,” but no one would want it used for cleaning.

What the apartment owner asked is a reasonable question and designers and architects report their clients are also asking them such questions. In fact, understanding what is green and what is not, why and how a product can be certified green or environmentally preferable, and what that really means is a source of confusion for both household consumers and professional purchasing agents. And this confusion has historically slowed the advancement of selecting greener or more environmentally responsible products, whether they be refrigerators or cleaning chemicals.

Over the past two or three decades, a number of terms have been used to describe green products. Some of these include: “ecological,” “eco-friendly,” “organic,” “natural,” “all-natural,” “recycled,” “energy saving” and “environmentally friendly.”

One thing most of these terms have had in common, at least until the past few years, is that they were invariably developed mainly for marketing purposes to help sell products. As far back as the mid-1970s, manufacturers started using these labels without any verification, proof or explanation as to why. Making matters worse, years later it was determined that some of these “green” products were actually more damaging to the environment than the conventional products they had been designed to replace.

In recent years, this practice has been referred to as “green-washing.” According to Scot Case, executive director of Canada’s EcoLogo program who is credited with developing the term, green-washing refers to manufacturers or suppliers offering no proof or verification of a product’s reduced environmental impact or even outright lying about it. In all fairness, it must also be noted that some manufacturers over the years have labeled their products “green” based on the best scientific data of the day. Unfortunately, more study and newer research and technologies sometimes disproved these earlier claims.

But the bottom line is that—intentional or not—there has been and still is a lot of confusion about green claims. “It’s incredibly understandable why consumers are so confused [about green claims] . . . no one has stepped up to define the rules of the game,” said Case. “And [in many cases], consumers are being duped by meaningless labels while the truly legitimate [green] labels are getting lost in the green fog.”


Some green advocates believe the U.S. government should provide some direction on this issue to clear the confusion, and they reference the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program as an example.

The Organic Food Productions Act of 1990, passed by Congress and signed into law by then President George H.W. Bush, resulted in the creation of the National Organic Program. The act defined organic farming practices and created standards for food producers, processors and handlers wishing to use the label “organic” on their food items.

To ensure the criteria are being adhered to, independent, third-party private and state certifiers are required to inspect the entire production and processing of the food items. Adding some teeth to the law, the act specifies that it will be illegal for anyone to use the term organic on a food product if it does not meet the set standards and regulations.

“When it comes to everything but organic food, we simply do not have a law, at least in North America, verifying what is organic or green,” said Mike Sawchuk, VP and general manager for Enviro-Solutions, a leading manufacturer of green cleaning products. “However, there are examples of how certain industries on their own have developed and decided to honor certain criteria that determine if a product is or is not green. And one of the largest is the professional cleaning industry.”


As with other industries, there are several organizations certifying cleaning products used in homes and commercial locations as green. The three most notable are Green Seal, EcoLogo and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Program, which has grown in prominence lately.

“Although the three are competitors, they all follow essentially the same methods to certify a cleaning product is green,” says Sawchuk. “And for the most part, their certifications are respected throughout the industry.”

According to Sawchuk, to start the process, the manufacturer tells the selected certification organization what category the product falls into and why it should be considered for green certification. If accepted, the product is sent for what some certification bodies call a “bench audit.” During this process, an accredited, third-party laboratory specializing in that criterion conducts an independent evaluation.

In total, more than a dozen criteria may need to be proved. Sawchuk says some of the items called into question include these:

• Is the product proven safer for users and building occupants when compared to comparable non-green products? • Does the product contain petroleum or petroleum by-products? • Is the product readily biodegradable and nontoxic? • Does the product contain potentially hazardous by-products? • Is the product packaged in recycled materials that are also themselves recyclable? • Does the product meet indoor air quality criteria? • Does the product work as well or better than comparative traditional products used for the same application?

If the results meet or exceed the set criteria, they are then sent to the certification organization, which verifies that each criterion has been met. If the product's results are approved, a second audit begins, this one referred to as the “site audit.”

The site audit essentially double-checks the laboratory's test results. But this process goes a step further: it traces the entire production of the item from start to finish, reconfirming that the product contains only the ingredients listed on its label. If the site audit proves successful, the product is proven green or green certified and can proudly bear the label of the certification organization.

“It should be noted that the certification process is not over just because a product is green certified,” added Sawchuk. “In fact, the certification process is never really over.” This is because most products are certified for only a set period of time (around 36 to 48 months). During that time, the criteria or standards may change. That means that in order for the product to hold onto its green-certification label, it may eventually need to be reformatted so that it can meet any changes in the criteria. Additionally, if there is any change in the product’s formulation, it may require that the product be retested and re-verified.

“And the audit process is not over either. Random site audits are not unusual by EcoLogo and some other certification organization,” Sawchuk explains. “During these audits, the entire manufacturing process of the certified product is open to reexamination and verification.”


Bolstering consumer confidence regarding what is green is now at the forefront of the green movement for some lawmakers, many industry professionals in a variety of industry segments, as well as many retailers, who see green confusion as an obstacle to the acceptance and selection of environmentally preferable products. Some industries may be able to institute and develop their own criteria, avoiding government intervention, as happened in the professional cleaning industry. Typically this is accomplished if the industry in question has a strong association and is made up of green advocates who put personal agendas aside, focusing instead on the bigger picture of helping to green their industry.

Without green standards, not only the general public, but even the most notable green advocates can be misled. Remember Scot Case, mentioned earlier? In 2007, he purchased a new refrigerator that proudly bore the Energy Star seal, indicating it was supposed to use at least 20 percent less energy than the maximum required by federal standards at that time.

However, two years later, he received a letter from the manufacturer indicating that the refrigerator actually did not qualify for Energy Star status. This happened because appliance manufacturers are able to “self-certify” their products. Examples such as this underscore the problems and confusion that still exist and the reasons some independent verification following established and honored criteria is so greatly needed.

—Robert Kravitz is a writer for the professional cleaning, building, hotel, hospitality, medical, and education industries. He may be reached at rkravitz@rcn.com.
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