Procuring Green Cleaners: Minnesota's Experience

Fact Sheet, Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA)

Interest in environmentally preferable purchasing is growing at a local,state, and federal level. The purpose of this document is to foster information sharing about environmental purchasing initiatives so that we may learn from and build on the experiences of one another. For more information, contact Kelly Luck at the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA) at 612-215-0220 or

Project Overview

For the first time, Minnesota has incorporated environmental and public health specifications into the state cleaning supplies contract to better safeguard the health of custodial workers, building occupants and the environment. The state contract for cleaning supplies is widely used by state agencies and local governments. In the last two years, nearly $2 million of traditional cleaning products were purchased through the contract.

In November 1997, the state's five-year contract for cleaning supplies expired, allowing the Department of Administration to select new vendors and new, more environmentally responsible cleaning products. To maintain high standards, the products were also required to pass performance tests. The new contract allows state agencies and public entities to buy from 33 categories of cleaning products, including all purpose cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers, disinfectants, furniture and glass cleaners, and soaps.


The Materials Management Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration serves as the state's central purchaser, buying goods for nearly 130 state agencies. In the spring of 1997, the Department of Administration assembled a group to help evaluate the expiring state contract for cleaning supplies. Users of cleaners, primarily custodians and procurement officers employed by state agencies, were asked to participate in developing recommendations for improving this contract. Representatives from 12 agencies accepted this invitation.

One of the strongest recommendations to come from the participants was to offer more brands on state contract. Under the expiring contract, two vendors were awarded the bid, limiting the brands available. In order to expand the selection, the Department of Administration agreed to include on the contract all products which passed both performance and environmental tests. Work groups were formed to develop environmental and performance criteria.

Goals and Participants of the Environmental Work Group

The environmental work group was organized by the Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA), the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP). Organizations with experience using or researching alternative cleaning products were also asked to participate on the work group.

Other members included:

The procurement goals were to develop environmental standards which:

The educational goals were to:

Similar Initiatives Investigated

The committee began by researching the few initiatives underway in the country on environmentally preferable cleaners. The first program investigated was the city of Santa Monica. Using a combination of pass/fail and environmental ranking criteria, the city switched to less toxic cleaners, resulting in a 5% cost savings, enhanced morale of the janitorial staff, and a significant reduction in the use and storage of hazardous chemicals.

Two states followed Santa Monica's example - Massachusetts and Vermont. Both were in the early stages of developing environmental criteria to be incorporated into the states' bid specifications. The Federal purchasing department, known as the General Service Administration (GSA), also created general guidelines to help assess the environmentally preferable attributes of cleaners. While groundwork was laid by these entities, each faced its own challenges in developing criteria.

Recognizing that a simple template did not exist, the work group drew on these experiences to help shape Minnesota's criteria. Standards set by other organizations were also explored. Among them was Green Seal, a non-profit scientific organization that certifies environmental product claims. The other was the Washington Toxics Coalition, an organization which rates household products for its hazardous contents.

The committee also consulted with local experts, including state toxicologists and health officials. The group worked intensely for three months to investigate and design criteria.

Environmental Criteria Established

Ultimately, criteria were developed to evaluate the products in order of these concerns: human health and safety, ecological stressors, product packaging, and fragrances and dyes. Since building maintenance crews are frequently exposed to chemicals in cleaning products, preference was given to products that minimize risks to human safety. Vendors received higher points for products containing ingredients that are not highly toxic, cancer-causing, flammable, or prone to cause serious skin irritation, respiratory problems or damage nasal membranes.

Because the chemicals in many cleaning products end up in local wastewater systems, and eventually in Minnesota's rivers and lakes, preference was also given to products that minimize the impact on our environment. The Minnesota Toxics Indexing System was used to score product ingredients according to their hazard potential. The indexing system assigns numeric values to substances based on toxicity data, combined with exposure scenarios, to predict the flow and eventual fate of chemicals in different media.

In addition, products received higher points for using plant-based ingredients because they are a renewable resource. Points were awarded for avoiding phosphates and substances that contribute to ozone depletion. Preference was given to products sold in reusable and/or recycled content packaging. A few points were also given to products not sold in aerosol containers because punctured or half-empty aerosols can increase its flammability. Products with synthetic dyes and fragrances were avoided to limit potential allergic reactions or skin irritations.

Evaluation and Approval of Products for State Contract

In May 1997, the criteria were transformed into an environmental certification form and sent out in a bid packet to vendors. Bidders were given roughly two months to complete and return the environmental forms to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. In the fall, the responses were reviewed and scored. Vendors were required to certify the information they provided was accurate and true or else risk penalty. Each question on the form was assigned a point value. Of 90 points, a minimum of 60 points were needed for products to pass on their environmental and health attributes. Because this was a new process, environmental reviewers met with each vendor once the scoring had been completed to inform them of the results and explain how products were scored.

At the same time products were being evaluated for their environmental attributes, other state agencies were testing all products to determine their effectiveness in cleaning. Similarly, the products had to score 60 out of 90 on their functional performance or they were disqualified. The Department of Administration tabulated final scores and developed a list of environmentally preferable products. A final letter was sent to vendors requesting them to bid on pricing and service for the products and brands specified. The state approved all bids submitted.


In February 1998, the contract was finalized allowing state agencies and public entities to buy from 33 categories of cleaning products, including all purpose cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers, disinfectants, furniture and glass cleaners, and soaps. Floor care products will be added to the contract by mid-summer. The real effort begins now to see what brands are purchased and which cleaners the users prefer in terms of performance, cost and ease of use.

Lessons Learned

Developing environmental specifications is a cooperative effort. In Minnesota, the partnership between the purchasing department and state environmental agencies proved to be a positive experience. Given the heavy workload of purchasers and the complexity involved in measuring environmental and health risks, developing specifications can be a challenge.

If possible, enlist the help of a chemical engineer, preferably with a background in reverse engineering or the formulation of cleaners. Environmental, health and safety staff can also serve as a resource to purchasers, offering guidance on setting criteria. In return, these agencies gain a better understanding of the procurement process.

Clear and steady communication is key. It is essential to keep all stakeholders informed of changes made to the bid specifications. Stakeholders include purchasers, custodians, vendors, and any other parties involved in developing the environmental criteria. Establish a method for updating and checking in with the stakeholders on a regular basis. Also, purchasers may want to hold a bidder's conference to familiarize vendors and their chemists with the bid process and the new specifications.

Allow sufficient time to evaluate products. Determine the potential number of bids, the time needed to conduct an environmental review of each bid, and how many reviewers are available. Also, allow time to meet as a group to review and tabulate the results. Minnesota's six reviewers felt that two and-a-half months was an adequate amount of time to evaluate the environmental attributes of nearly 400 products submitted by 23 vendors.

At least three to four months is suggested for performance testing. It is also advised that vendors provide training during the trials.

Where possible, ask for verification of environmental attributes. Minnesota required vendors to submit Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) and labels to help support their environmental and health claims. In some cases, these documents provided little information, making it a challenge to interpret certain data. To help verify claims, buyers may want to require vendors to submit lab tests or other documentation. Another option is to request inert ingredients be disclosed. Know that requesting disclosure is controversial and requires strict confidentiality.

Select a system for rating products. A point system assigns a value to the environmental characteristics of a product, with the total number of points representing an overall environmental rating of the product. The overall score can then be used to compare and eliminate products. A pass/fail system eliminates a product based on a single environmental attribute. The city of Santa Monica used a combination of both rating systems. Minnesota chose to use a point system, believing this provides greater flexibility in selecting products. On the other hand, a consequence of using this system is that some products with negative attributes will pass under the point system.

Continue to improve on evaluating the toxicity of commercial cleaners. Minnesota found that evaluating the lethal dose for ingestion, inhalation, and contact with the bare skin had its limitations. Some vendors had
difficulty producing data and some chemists argue that this is not the best method of measuring overall exposure risks.

Take steps to ensure products are scored consistently. To make vendor responses more uniform for product comparison, Minnesota required vendors to apply the environmental and health criteria to their product in its concentrated form. Some purchasers may want to go a step further and define concentrate, since the mixtures can vary anywhere from 20 to 80 percent water. To make accurate price comparisons, it is recommended that purchasers analyze the cost- per-application.

Continue to improve the selection process. New ideas and challenges continue to emerge about the best methods for selecting environmentally preferable cleaners. Explore different options and learn from other efforts.

The state of Massachusetts received public comment on their environmental specifications before recently finalizing them. For more information, contact Eric Friedman at 617-727-7500 or Also, contact Debbie Raphael with the city of Santa Monica for more details on their newly revised specifications for cleaners. Her phone number is 310-458-2255.

Lead by example. All documents sent to and submitted by vendors should be double-sided and printed on recycled paper.

Other Materials Available from OEA:

Environmental criteria and rationale statement.

Neighborhood Energy Consortium Case Study on less toxic cleaners.