FootprintFeature: Greenwash needn’t be a dirty word

THE TOUGHEST test of a business’s sustainability credentials is what it does out of the public eye – and eco-friendly cleaning is the next challenge for foodservice operators. Nick Hughes reports.


It hasn’t happened overnight, but there’s little doubt that foodservice operators are beginning to rise to the challenge of delivering food with stronger environmental credentials.


However, an even truer test of a business’s sustainability credentials is what happens away from the gaze of the public eye. Take cleaning products, for instance. There’s little reputational advantage from using an environmentally friendly product over one that relies heavily on toxic chemicals. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing for businesses to do.


“Sustainability in restaurants is about much more than the provenance of foods,” points out Mark Linehan, the managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. “Environmental responsibility is also a key element and the availability of ecological cleaning products that are safe and competitively priced is a hugely positive step.”


Ethical cleaning products are well established in the retail sector where brands such as Method and Ecover are widely available in supermarkets. Now eco-friendly brands are beginning to penetrate the foodservice sector as well.


EnviroProducts has been selling its e-cloth range of cloths, towels and mops through retailers since 1995 and counts major chains including Tesco, Waitrose and John Lewis among its stockists. Because of the high- quality fibres used to make the cloths, they require only water to clean, removing the need for harmful chemicals that can contaminate water cycles.


At the beginning of last year, the commercial director, Laurence Smith, spotted an opportunity to tailor a range to the foodservice sector and the Professional range was born. “Within the retail market ‘green’ has been important for a number of years but the hospitality sector is catching up,” says Smith. “Consumers are looking to hotels in particular to implement green policies.”


Hotels account for the majority of EnviroProducts’ professional business, with Best Western hotels and the Sheraton Park Lane among its customers. The Professional range already accounts for around 10% of e-cloth sales and Smith believes that in five years’ time it could be as big as the retail products.


One thing holding back e-cloth’s penetration of the foodservice sector is a reluctance on the part of large operators to switch from their current cleaning products. “It takes time because these companies operate on long-term contracts,” explains Smith.


Mark Jankovich, the chief executive of Delphis Eco, has also experienced resistance from the major contract caterers to switching to his plant-based range of cleaning products. Jankovich started off selling to commercial cleaners and while he admits foodservice “has not been our heartland”, he says that “it’s very obviously becoming a place to play”.


Resistance to eco-friendly cleaning products has traditionally been rooted in a belief that they are more expensive, says Jankovich. However, he is keen to stress this is often not the case. “In many cases our products are cheaper because we’re using higher concentrations so you use less.”


While in retail green products are often able to command a premium as the consumer buys into the idea of doing something good for the environment, in the cost-obsessed foodservice sector green premiums do not play so well. “The green thing is nice to have but ultimately it’s all down to price and budget,” says Jankovich.


Schools, for example, have a budget of 1p to clean a plate, hence the need to deliver a cost-effective cleaning solution. “Our range of products are cost neutral, highly effective, simple to use, gentler on the cleaning staff and in many cases have resulted in the rationalisation of the range of chemicals used, which has resulted in saving on administrative costs,” says Jankovich.


Scepticism over performance has been another hurdle that suppliers have had to overcome. For EnviroProducts in particular, whose e-cloths entirely remove the need for chemicals, Smith admits that it’s a challenge convincing potential customers that his products can clean just as effectively using only water. He stresses, however, that performance, rather than the brand’s green credentials, has always been its key selling point. “In terms of an order of priority performance is first. We only put products out on the market that perform,” he says. Having made significant headway with small and medium-sized businesses, the next challenge for smaller suppliers such as EnviroProducts and Delphis Eco will be convincing the contract catering giants that their products can deliver the required all- round cleaning solution.


But simply talking up the green credentials of a product itself is often not enough to persuade the big boys to buy into your proposition. The environmental impact of cleaning products does not begin and end with the ingredients, explains Paul Bracegirdle, the environmental manager at Sodexo UK & Ireland.


Sodexo has been working with its global hygiene partner Ecolab for over 10 years to ensure its cleaning really is better for the environment.


“Over the past year we have increased our use of two-litre pouches of ultra-concentrated solutions which have the environmental benefit of reducing packaging by up to 98% compared with the one-gallon concentrated solution,” says Bracegirdle.


Sodexo has also started to move away from liquid detergents as Ecolab has introduced solid detergents into its product range that create savings in both plastic and cardboard packaging.


“Over the last two years, plastic packaging, as a result of using two solid detergent products in our business, has reduced by 84% compared with packaging associated with a liquid detergent, which is equivalent to more than seven tonnes and has eliminated the need for approximately 12,000 boxes,” says Bracegirdle.


All of this gives credence to Bracegirdle’s view that there is “more to green cleaning than meets the eye”. Regardless of the individual approach to cleaning, the very fact that the foodservice sector is giving careful thought to the environmental impact of cleaning products should be cause for celebration. Even though cleaning may be out of sight, it’s no longer out of mind.