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A greener clean

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Canvas cleaning companies walk a fine line when it comes to sustainability. The problem isn’t that safe, relatively sustainable cleaners can’t be made; it’s that cleaning is at best a once-a-year job, so customers don’t tend to value “greenness” very highly. They’re not thinking of the total effect of your cleaning business on the environment; they’re thinking about the tough stain on their own individual piece of fabric and worrying that a more environmentally friendly product might not get the job done.

From a marketing standpoint, “We use green products” generally won’t get you very far. But there are several ways your shop can save money, save the environment and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability that will reap long-lasting marketing benefits.

Be clear about your limits.
“We do everything that’s natural,” says Scott Massey, owner of Awning Cleaning Industries, New Haven, Conn. “What I mean by that is, we don’t clean diesel fuel off of boat covers. We don’t clean truck tarps. Anything that would have any annoying level of pollutants on it, no.”

Massey says cleaning is intended to deal with bird droppings, dirt and mildew. Those stains come out relatively easily, without having to use extraordinary measures. Every once in a while, though, when boats get stacked for the winter, one will drip fuel on another, and that’s when you end up with your own personal Superfund site.

“Will we clean a little spot? Yeah,” says Massey. “But something that’s soaked and stinks? No. It’s not going to come out good, and it’s environmentally uncool. Or you end up with the customer saying, ‘I’m not happy, and I don’t want it; I’m not going to pick it up,’ and now you have something that you have to hang onto and go out on a special day when you can try to get rid of it locally. So we just attempt never to get involved with something that’s not pretty natural.”

Promote regular fabric care.
Washing fabrics regularly reduces the incidence of tough stains, which means cleaners can use simpler, less toxic chemicals. Customers are notorious for putting off cleaning until their awnings or boat covers are disastrously dirty, but framing the issue environmentally may help light a fire under them. Remind customers to clean on an annual basis, and you’ll demonstrate your commitment to the environment while making your job easier.

“If we could get a regular basis of maintenance on most of our fabrics, they’d all look great, they wouldn’t get particularly filthy, we wouldn’t need to use anything nasty, and life would be better,” says Massey. “Generally, if you’re just using a simple soap solution and you’re maintaining on a regular basis, it’s not so bad. Unfortunately, our world usually waits until something is pretty filthy.”

Regular cleaning also significantly increases the useful life of fabric products, which is an additional benefit to the environment.

“On our display that goes into the stores, it says ‘Clean and protect regularly to avoid these issues,’” says Marianne Iosso, vice president of Iosso Products Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill. “If they just hit [a camper or a boat cover] with the hose when they’re done using it and let it dry, it will last ten times longer. People are busy. I can understand. You go camping for the weekend and you get in late, and you’re exhausted and you promise to take care of it later. Then it just sits there, and it does cause problems. But in the long run if they take care of it promptly, it helps.”

Reduce water use and runoff.
Ever notice that high-end car washes advertise their water recycling systems? That’s because one of the most significant environmental impacts from cleaning is water use, and the runoff of cleaners into the watershed. If your customers see you out on the lawn or in the parking lot hosing down tent panels and scrubbing them, it’s probably crossing their minds. Clean up your game, and let your customers know why.

Jeff Andersen, president of Vacu-Wash USA, Greenland, N.H., notes that his fully enclosed cleaning machines allow water and cleaning liquid to be reused several times before being discarded. The machines accommodate very large sails and panels, which then don’t have to be hosed down outdoors. On a smaller scale, a setup like the Victorian claw-foot bathtub with fabric rack at Carriage House Canvas LLC, Betterton, Md., helps wrangle fabric in an indoor environment where water loss and chemical leaching can be controlled.

Use the safest chemicals you can find.
You might not make it the focus of your marketing—customers often believe green cleaners don’t work as well as harsher ones—but using green chemicals is worth doing, for the safety of your workforce and the community.

“We don’t design a new product unless I can make
it green,” says Iosso. “We’ve had this in mind for many years, and we try to incorporate that into all of our products if we can.”

Massey concurs. “Nothing’s going to be perfectly safe or perfectly green, but we keep pushing that edge a little farther,” he says. “Does that mean our cleaners are so green that you could add a sprig of pineapple and a straw and call it a drink? No, they’re certainly not that green. But they’re the safest stuff that’s out there.”

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