Green Cleaning In Schools: A Guide for Advocates

Taking Action: How Do I Get My School To Use Certified Green Cleaning Products?

Many parents and health advocates have successfully convinced their schools to switch to certified green cleaning products. You can do it too. If you believe your local school can do more to ensure a healthy school environment, these steps will help you advocate for green cleaning in schools. The guidance outlined below should be viewed as a fluid process rather than sequential steps. We encourage you to be flexible as some steps may take place simultaneously, and you will need to make adjustments to others depending on what works in your community. The following steps will help you successfully advocate for green cleaning in your school:
  1. Find out about the cleaning practices in your school district
  2. Learn the facts about green cleaning
  3. Build a team of allies
  4. Engage decision makers

1. Find Out About the Cleaning Practices of Your School District: Are They Using Certified Green Cleaning Products?

Return to the top

Your first priority is to find out about the cleaning practices of your local school. You may be pleasantly surprised, as schools often do not advertise their green cleaning activities. Once you ask some questions, you may find that you don’t have to do anything!

Helpful Hint: Anticipate Resistance

Change is always seen as risky. Do not be surprised if barriers and road blocks arise along the way—in fact, anticipating those objections and having counter-arguments ready could serve you well. Common objections to taking action include:

  • I’ve used these products my whole life and I’m healthy.
  • Green products just don’t clean as well.
  • Green products are too expensive.

Counter these fears with facts on the health benefits, effectiveness, and cost of green cleaning found in this guide to help you move past fears and resistance.

However, you have to ask the right people to find out. Because maintenance and custodial practices and policies are generally established at the school district level, it is important to talk with both school and district-level staff to get a clear picture of your school’s environmental health. Key targets are school principals, district facility staff, the superintendant, and school board members. The questions you ask should help you determine if a transition to certified green cleaning products is needed. Here are some examples of effective questions:

  • What cleaning products are being used at your school(s)?
  • Are the products ready to use or concentrated?
    • If concentrates, is automatic dilution equipment used?
  • Do teachers and staff use cleaning products brought from home in their classrooms or offices?
    • If so, how common is this practice and what products do they bring to campus?
  • [In California] Are all of your schools considered “in good repair” according to the Facility Inspection Tool, or F.I.T.? www.cashnet.org/resource-material/FITGuidebook.pdf
    • If not, which school facilities require repairs? You can also look this up on a school’s School Accountability Report Card (
  • How many students and staff have asthma?
    • How many miss school or work because of asthma?

2. Learn the Facts: Build Your Case for Green Cleaning

Return to the top

If you are going to effectively advocate for healthier cleaning practices at your school district, you will need to be able to clearly explain the risks of traditional practices and the benefits of green cleaning. It may take some convincing to get decision-makers to act. Having a firm understanding of the issues will help you make the most persuasive case that transitioning to green cleaning products is a great step towards ensuring the health and safety of students, teachers, and school staff.

Developing your Message:

Schools have saved money using green cleaning products by:

  • Using Concentrates and Dilution Equipment
  • Using Multi-Purpose Products
  • Taking Advantage of Procurement Contracts
  • Improving Health and Efficiency(See Appendix B for details)

In the appendices, we have provided two extensive fact sheets to help you get started. Appendix A, developed by RAMP and The Environmental Working Group, provides you with the scientific evidence on the negative health effects of traditional products. Appendix B, prepared by the Green Schools Initiative and the Green Purchasing Institute, outlines how schools have found cost savings by transitioning to certified green cleaning products. Integrate the information in these fact sheets and any research you do on your own to develop a strong case for your schools to change. Here are some key points:

  • Green cleaning products pose less health risk: Certified green cleaning products are not allowed to contain ingredients that cause cancer or asthma, or to contain phthalates and heavy metals. A recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that certified green cleaning products contained one third the chemicals with known health effects compared to traditional products used in schools. Additionally, a mock classroom cleaned with green cleaners had one-sixth the air pollution of those cleaned with traditional products (see EWG’s full report here: www.ewg.org/schoolcleaningsupplies).
  • Green cleaning products are safer for workers. Certified green cleaning products cannot be corrosive to the skin or eyes and must meet standards for inhalation toxicity, absorption through the skin, and combustibility. Nationally, custodial chemical injuries cost on the order of $25 million each year in lost time and workers compensation.
  • Green cleaning products are better for the environment. Green cleaning products must meet stringent criteria to ensure they are environmentally preferable. Certified products are free of ozone-depleting chemicals, less toxic to aquatic life, less likely to build up in the body, have fewer smog-producing chemicals, degrade quickly in the environment, and are more concentrated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. Products must even meet criteria concerning recyclable packaging.
  • Green cleaning products can help schools save money. Schools are saving money by using concentrated green cleaners, automatic dilution equipment, and reducing the number of cleaning products schools need. After phasing green cleaning into all 180 schools in June 2008, Palm Beach County School District (Florida) projected annual district wide savings of $360,000. Additionally, schools can save money by achieving better health for students and staff. California, for example, estimates a loss of $40 million annually from asthma related absences alone.

Additional Resources:

3. Build a Team of Allies: Find and Work with Others

Return to the top

No matter how much passion you have, no one can do this alone. The key is to find allies who will work with you to improve the school. At this point it may be helpful to map out the players in your school community. Your school may have a Coordinated School Health Council, a health and safety team, a “green team”, or a student leadership group already working on school health. You may find willing partners in parents, students, teachers, school nurses, administrative staff, school board members, and custodial staff. There may also be health advocates, non-profits, or local civic and neighborhood associations that could be strong allies on this issue as well.

Find out who is out there and start talking to them. For some, this may be the most intimidating part. How do you approach so many people you don’t know and who may disagree with you? One way to simplify the process is to find ways to address groups of people. Presentations and discussions at Parent Teacher Association or Parent Teacher Student Association meetings can be a great place to start. Another effective strategy to spread the word is to identify people with influence within groups. For example, talking to local union leaders can help you get a large number of supporters and active partners (teachers, custodian, and school employees each have labor unions). In Solano Unified School District (California), for example, the Solano County Asthma Coalition partnered with the teachers union, custodial staff, and district administration to develop and implement green cleaning practices district wide.

Developing Your Message: Certified Green Cleaning Products Work

In addition to meeting strict health and environmental standards, green cleaning products must clean as effectively as traditional products in order to receive certification.

With a group of partners who understand the issue and have agreed on a strategy, you can send a powerful message to decision makers about the importance of the issue and the need to take action. You can demonstrate the broad support for action by submiting sign-on letters or petitions with the signatures of your allies to decision makers as part of your request to meet with them to talk about the issue.

Additional Resources

• The Green Schools Initiative has a sample powerpoint presentation on green cleaning in schools: www.greenschools.net/downloads/GreenCleaningWebinar112109.pdf

• The Environmental Working Group has a sample letter to schools requesting information about cleaning practices: www.ewg.org/files/2009/10/school-cleaners/letter.doc


4. Engage Decision-Makers: Commitment is Essential

Return to the top

Now that you have the backing of numerous supporters (ideally, some of whom will be the decision-makers themselves), you are poised to ask for commitments from the school district to take action. So what do you ask schools to do? That’s up to you and your partners. As a group, you can work with school officials to develop a plan that is going to work in your community. Below you will find several green cleaning resources designed specifically for schools that outline strategies a school can employ to incorporate healthier cleaning practices. Reviewing these guides with school staff may help determine the best course of action for your school.

Developing Your Message: Win-Win Opportunity

Not only are certified products safer, they also work, are widely available, and are cost effective.

Often, schools decide to transition to certified green cleaning products in phases. This can be a good strategy to pursue as fears and doubts about green cleaning products can be overcome through initial pilot projects. Staff can test green products and procedures at a few schools to identify what works for them. Once the pilot is complete, the district can gradually expand the program to all of its schools. Finally, when green cleaning is fully in place, school districts can make green cleaning a district policy.

Additional Resources

Sample Policies

Green Cleaning Guides for Schools

Certified Green Cleaning Products

  • Green Seal’s Institutional Cleaning Products Standard GS-37: www.greenseal.org/certification/standards/GS-37_Industrial_Cleaner_Standard.pdf
  • EcoLogo’s Standard for Hard Surface Cleaners CCD-146: www.ecologo.org/common/assets/criterias/CCD-146.pdf

General Resources

Return to the top
Share