Part 2: Green Cleaning – Educating Customers

The authenticity of your green cleaning program depends on two things – the completeness of your green protocol and how you talk about it. The former is addressed in Part 4. This article details decisions related to your public messaging about green cleaning. The three main areas are legality of claims, removing consumer bias and creating awareness for vulnerable populations.

New! Improved! Legal?

Marketers are notorious for making lofty but nebulous claims that are difficult to substantiate. “Bio-degradable” is a term consumers understand but “natural” and “organic” are often misunderstood. Obama’s Executive Order No. 13514 gives us no help when it comes to figuring out how to quantify how “green” our service is.

The Federal Trade Commission has established and maintained guidelines on environmental claims in advertising since 1992. These are not standards. The FTC considers how consumers interpret environmental claims and then enforces those meanings, according to Randy Shaheen, partner with advertising law firm Venable LLP.  The FTC’s purpose is to defend the American public from deceptive or unfair marketing practices. It’s important to understand what “greenwashing” is to avoid trouble with your reputation or the law.

Especially pertinent to our industry are three types of claims: general environmental benefits, “free of” statements and environmental seals. Using these terms in a non-compliant manner is illegal.

Terms such as “environmentally friendly”, “green” and “eco-safe” are considered to be impossible to substantiate. Where using broad claims, messaging should include some tangible environmental benefit. For example, product labeling that claims to be environmentally friendly should back that up with some supporting statement. In the case of pre-mixed chemicals, it would be okay to state that reduced landfill packaging waste of x% resulted from diluting concentrated formulas instead of buying ready-to-use formulations.

Standards for green cleaning products require that chemistries be free of a long list of toxins including carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins. These are fair to assert as long as you have a material safety data sheet to demonstrate the chemical makeup of the product in question. (See Part 4 for more on safety data sheets and OSHA.)

Environmental seals and third party certifications are considered endorsements by the FTC and must be supported with the basis for that award. In the case of cleaning equipment, it is not enough to state that your vacuums are certified by the Carpet & Rug Institute’s Seal of Approval program. Back it up with a simple phrase like “Seal of Approval standards include minimum performance levels for soil removal and reduced wear and tear.” It is to your advantage to spell such things out because it only builds your credibility.

There are two more pitfalls to avoid with your messaging. These are not illegal, but they could damage your reputation and they certainly don’t uphold the standards of professionalism for our industry.

The first is hidden trade-offs. Suppose you use cleaning wipes. They may be impregnated with safer chemistries and even organic cleaning agents. But consider the paper component. This case is one you would hopefully not have to write messaging about, since environmentally-minded green cleaning services would likely reject such a product in the protocol development phase of their green launch.

The second is “lesser of the evils” assertions. An example would be the “mildest disinfectant”. Disinfectant cleaning solutions are not considered green because they are formulated to kill organisms, no matter how mild.

Extra Strength! Bias for more.

Marketers are also notorious for brainwashing consumers to think that more is more. “Extra strength!” trains us to think that using more product or a stronger product will work better or faster. In this vein of thinking green cleaning gets misunderstood, because if harsher is stronger green products can’t possibly work as well. But Joe is confident his efficacy is on par with traditional products. Behind his mad-scientist experimentation was a conviction to produce results as well as protect against risks. “Green Clean Maine cleans 200 – 250 customers per week and we get great customer feedback. You can see our reviews on Google.” He backed that up with, “We have a waiting list and charge a premium for our service. We are chosen because we are green.”

We are also trained to believe that clean has a smell. “Clean has no smell,” Kris Koenig asserts. “Our market was already knowledgeable and ready for a green cleaning company, so I didn’t have to educate clients very much at all. Our clients want a home that smells like a home or smells neutral. But I keep hearing from other CBOs that their clients have a certain bias for strong chemicals, and expect a certain smell.”

Having grown up with pine-scented, ocean-scented, and mountain dew-scented cleaning products, it’s easy to see why our society evaluates cleanliness based on both olfactory and visual senses. “Most consumers assume you need strong chemicals to do a good job. They expect a certain smell when they walk in the door. We are fortunate our clients don’t expect that.” Koenig explains that fragrances don’t contribute to the actual cleaning outcome and that they can be harmful to your health or sourced in inhumane ways.”

It is responsible marketing to educate misinformed clients about environmental or health considerations by stating the problem that your solution solves. That means doing your research and backing up your statements with facts. You don’t have to go into detail, but you should have a good understanding of the health risks your formulas as designed to avoid.

It’s not healthy if it’s not clean.

Obama’s executive order puts a spotlight on healthy as well as efficacious cleaning. This is especially important for populations more vulnerable to the toxins in traditional cleaning products. Infants and toddlers, the elderly, those with asthma or allergies, those fighting infections, those undergoing chemotherapy or dialysis, pregnant women and even pets feel greater impacts to these toxins.

If you’re going to emphasize the health benefits of your green cleaning service, it’s especially important that your regimen be “clean” – fully green and designed with these populations in mind. Otherwise, saying you provide a “healthier” or “safer” clean just isn’t factual.

On the positive, if you have stringent “do no harm” criteria that indeed is safer for these populations, it is fair to promote that as long as you can provide the material safety data sheets to substantiate the safer formulations of your cleaning solutions.

From a messaging standpoint, it all boils down to a three-part test. Is it legal? Is it true? Is it responsible? The messaging aspect of your green launch may necessitate a fresh look at your cleaning protocols in order to protect your responsibility, your honesty and transparency and your legal standing.

“Before we decided to start a cleaning business, my husband and I were trying to find a green cleaning service for our own home. We couldn’t. We saw a need, so we started Natura Clean.” Koenig has always been interested in environmentalism so the dedication to authenticity with her green cleaning regimen was ingrained in her business planning. “Don’t just buy into a label,” she urges companies to do their research before launching a green cleaning program. “Their claims can be untrue.” Similarly, your claims to your customers should be true. Consumers are right to be wary of vague or generic claims and their antennae have been raised by science and the media. Armed with information, you can help protect your community and your reputation with authentically green claims you can uphold.

Be sure to check out the other articles in this series:

Prologue

Part 1 – It’s Your Business

Part 2 – Educating Customers

Part 3 – Engaging Employees

Part 4 – Service Delivery