Jill Fehrenbacher

GREENWASH YOUR FLOORS WITH THE SWIFFER

by , 03/06/07
filed under: Greenwashing, New York City

PSFK conference, Swiffer, Proctor and Gamble, P&G, Greenwashing 101, Greenwash, Greenwash your floors

Today I’m speaking on a panel at the PSFK conference about “Greenwashing.” For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term – “Greenwashing” is the act of trying to pass off unsustainable products as eco-friendly through branding, packaging or mislabeling. I love to see companies make an effort to go green, and so I inherently want to trust companies when they say their products are sustainable. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent, as the “green bubble” inflates, that you always need to read the fine print. While preparing my talk on greenwashing today, I had to search for examples and frankly, the bad apples weren’t hard to find. The most entertaining example of greenwashing I found was this editorial piece in Businesweek about how “green” the Swiffer is.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Swiffer is a plastic contraption designed to replace the good old fashion mop. It is sold with a box of disposable, plastic-wrapped, chemical-soaked pieces of paper that go straight from your floor to landfill, where the chemicals leach into the ground. Yet the designer of the Swiffer, Gianfranco Zaccai, has recently published a piece in Businessweek magazine about how he is contributing to the greening of the planet with this device:

Cleaning the floor with an old-fashioned mop and detergent is a messy and unpleasant job that uses many gallons of hot water and great amounts of detergent every week in millions of homes around the world. The water, the energy needed to heat that water, and the environmental impact of dumping the detergent into the waste stream are terribly costly, and all for a job no one likes doing anyway.

Swiffer, Proctor and Gamble, Greenwashing 101, Greenwashing

The ironies of this article haven’t gone unnoticed and a small debate has been raging over at Treehugger – is the Swiffer an example of sustainable design? Continuum’s President and CEO Gianfranco Zaccai assert that the Swiffer saves gallons of water every year, then calls on all of us to think about our grandchildren when designing for the future, to follow his example. We believe that the Swiffer story is an excellent example of greenwashing – making an unproven claim about a product or company’s green benefit, when the product in fact has a negative environmental impact.

The Swiffer requires the continual purchase of toxic chemical sheets that wind up in landfill – hardly a sustainable design solution. Certainly, the Swiffer has created a financially sustainable model for P&G, and people claim to “love” their Swiffers. (Including our friends and family – we’ve been getting into some pretty heated Swiffer debates at home). The success of the Swiffer has opened up an opportunity for true eco-innovation – Method Home has re-envisioned a floor-cleaning mop with non-toxic, compostable sweeping cloths. Which is more important – creating a design that people love, or one that does no harm?

What do you think? Green or greenwash?

+ Businessweek article

+ Debate on Treehugger

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Jennifer Van Der Meer, o2-nyc chair, Inhabitat contributer, green design consultant

JENNIFER VAN DER MEER

Jennifer is a leader in brand and product innovation, and is a founding principal at research design house Risqué Consulting. A former Wall Street analyst and economist, Jennifer transitioned into the design industry upon graduating with an MBA from HEC in Paris. She has held strategy and executive management positions at Organic, Inc., Frog Design, and Fahrenheit 212. A leader in the green design community in NY, Jennifer serves as chapter chair of o2-NYC, and lectures on the topic of sustainable innovation.

+ o2-NYC

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

JILL FEHRENBACHER
Jill is the founder of Inhabitat, as well as a freelance designer, green design consultant, and architecture grad student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. She created Inhabitat in the Spring of 2005 as a way to catalog her endless search for new ways to improve the world through forward-thinking, high-tech, and environmentally conscious design. Educated at Brown University, where she received a B.A. in Art Semiotics, and Central St. Martins, where she received an M.A. in Design Studies, she currently resides in New York City, which so far has been good for her obsession with rooftop gardens and vegan junk food restaurants.

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33 Comments

  1. evlogi petrov November 29, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    Not a greenwash, but definitely a greenwipe.

  2. MLF October 4, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I, too, have been worried about the chemicals in Swiffers. This morning I took pieces of an old Land’s End turtleneck (all I ever use for dusting) and attached it to my swiffer mop. Voila! Just as effective as the swiffer with no chemicals. I have tons of old Land’s End turtlenecks – these will be cut to swiffer size and used on my mop. No more chemicals!

  3. Maria Mortati July 11, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    The only way to stem the incoming tide of greenwashing is to push our legislators to define green similar to organic food labeling.

  4. Evelyn Lee Lois Dean June 12, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I love my Swiffer – BUT I am cheap, too, and decided to use my bundle of
    washcloths (12 for $5.00) that I purchase for cleaning, instead of buying
    refills. One washcloth is a perfect fit. You can soak it in whatever you
    choose, clean with it, rinse it out, use it again, then toss it in with all
    your washrags at the end of the cleaning.

    I like the design of the Swiffer – it is not sloppy like a mop is. Guess I’ll
    try the vinegar next. The washcloths last a really long time and take a lot
    of wear. I buy yellow and white checked ones so I do not get them mixed up
    with the household ones. I use soap on the wooden floors, and whatever is on
    hand for the kitchen.

    I came to this website because I wanted to learn what chemicals are in the
    Swiffers that smell so strong. Will someone respond in detail about the
    chemicals and any potential harm they may be to pets, newborns, elderly,
    persons with health risks?

    We all go barefoot Thai style in this house, so we need to know if the residue
    is harmful; also we have pets, and a newborn. I bought refills yesterday to do
    a really thorough clean-up because of the newborn in the house. If there really
    is a health issue we need to have a reliable answer spelled out.

  5. Valeri Sewald June 10, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I thought I would share my own solution to keeping the floors clean. Gaiam sells a mop in similar shape as the Swiffer, but allows for you to add your own solution. I find vinegar and water do wonders on the floor but also used the with an eco-friendly- cleaning solution, and Murphy’s oil soap for hardwood floors. You can buy washable microfiber clothes (5 per package) and thus cut down on wasteful paper ones. Its the only one like this I’ve seen – (made in Germany. ) For those who can’t give up theh convenience of the Swiffer set up, its definitely a friendlier solution.

  6. kipling May 31, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I love my Swiffer – BUT I am cheap, too, and decided to use my bundle of washcloths (12 for $5.00) that I purchase for cleaning, instead of buying refills. One washcloth is a perfect fit. You can soak it in whatever you choose, clean with it, rinse it out, use it again, then toss it in with all your washrags at the end of the cleaning.

    I like the design of the Swiffer – it is not sloppy like a mop is. Guess I’ll try the vinegar next. The washcloths last a really long time and take a lot of wear. I buy yellow and white checked ones so I do not get them mixed up with the household ones. I use soap on the wooden floors, and whatever is on hand for the kitchen.

    I came to this website because I wanted to learn what chemicals are in the Swiffers that smell so strong. Will someone respond in detail about the chemicals and any potential harm they may be to pets, newbor

    We all go barefoot Thai style in this house, so we need to know if the residue is harmful; also we have pets, and a newborn. I bought refills yesterday to do a really thorough clean-up because of the newborn in the house. If there really is a health issue we need to have a reliable answer spelled out. Thanks -

  7. stephen krajicek May 8, 2007 at 10:43 am

    COMSENTECH, Inc manufactures the original terry cloth mop “SH-MOP” which uses both cotton and microfiber washable and reusable bonnets. SH-MOP is truly a green product. (800)874-6672

  8. DT March 29, 2007 at 1:54 am

    Nice write up. It seems Continuum’s process was never green in the first place, however would it not fix the problems if the cleaning sheets are made biodegradable in the first place? Other than the green over hype, does it say anywhere that the sheets are non-biodgradable? Perhaps we are all getting worked up over nothing? Anyone have the product and can comment?

  9. Jim March 21, 2007 at 9:58 am

    ugh, i work for a Potbelly Sandwich Works and they are doing the same type of “greenwashing” to promote the fact that they serve salads now. Their salads come in gigantic plastic containters…they don’t offer a smaller size….

    then for their promotion they are giving away magnets, lettuce shaped stress balls, and other useless plastic crap. the only good thing they are doing is growing lettuce heads in some of the stores.

    oh yeah, and they don’t really recycle…they lead customers to believe that they do so by having seperate bins for garbage and glass.

  10. Todd March 19, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Me. “Come on, be honest!!!” Your medical bills are higher than mine if you’ve paid any in the last 10 years outside of annual check ups.
    How often do you eat off the floor and lick the soles of your shoes?
    Do your homework. Vineger is an age old disenfectant – let it sit on the floor for 10 minutes or so before the rinsing wipe-down. Done. Use soap, i.e. Dr. Bronners, for removing dirt. Also best to stay away from chlorine bleach whenever possible.
    I haven’t been sick more than maybe once in the last 15 years, and that was probably just an excuse to take a day off from work. Since I don’t eat off of the floor, nor with my feet, it’s unlikely that I’ll consume any germs that are on the floor. Coincidentally or not, I’ve also been a vegetarian for the last 15 years and I’m very physically active year round.
    I also don’t use antibacterial soap which kills 99.9% of all germs, as they state. As it is, there are beneficial germs too. The use of antibacterial soaps degrades the natural processes in sewage treatment facilities (some germs kill other germs as part of natural decomposition) therefor requiring more and more chemicals to be pumped in to do the job, meaning more chemicals in our bodies of water, and so forth and so on.
    Be honest, “Me”.

  11. Cheshire March 15, 2007 at 12:04 am

    Simply, BRAVO.

    One mop ,without the replaceably heads, is still my favorite next to a small washable rag.

  12. SteveR March 14, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    Didn’t know that “stick mops” were common in Copenhagen too. I’ve seen them in Mexico and they are easy to make and work great.

  13. Me March 14, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    vinegar and water

    I would like to know how much your medical bills are each year!! Vinegar and Water do not kill germs, bacteria or disease. Come on, be honest!!!

    I love my Swiffer! Wish I thought of it, well, in fact I did, but didn’t think people would want to waste paper like that. I don’t care anymore…LOL

    Take care all. Good Luck …

  14. Trevor March 13, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    This article caught my attention as I read about “greenwashing – making an unproven claim” and “trying to pass
    off’” , “through branding, packaging, and mislabeling”. Then I got to the second paragraph and I started to
    chuckle to myself. Thats where I noticed some real “irony”.
    I appreciate everything thats being done in the field of green technology and saving the planet. But when I
    read about it, I sometimes notice out of date “facts” or information. It’s being used as propaganda, and usually
    undermines the intelligence of the whole article.
    I’ve helped build modern landfills. Theres lots of regulations involved. There are third party testing agencies
    involved. Three feet of non water permeable clay is packed in stages and tested each step of the way. A
    heavy plastic liner goes on top, with welded seams, which are also tested. A foot of washed sand goes on top
    of the liner to protect it. No longer does anything have a chance to “leach” into the ground.
    This article aside, I enjoy inhabitat.com. And other sites or periodicles with similar interests. I would just like
    to see the “green” argument be supported with more up to date info.

  15. matt March 9, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Almost 10 years ago I lived with a family in Copenhagen for a semester while studying there. They always cleaned their floors with a small stiff brush on the end of a broomstick, which could be used on its own for scrubbing, or to push a moistened rage around for “swiffing.” It always seemed like such an elegant solution to me, as did an awful lot of things in Danish culture (bikes, paying for your shopping bags, great public transit, etc.).

    What really bugs me is that we (collectively) buy into the idea that cleaning and other daily menial tasks are just oh-so-difficult to perform. Once we believe the marketing department that there is a problem, we feel compelled to purchase their solution. There should be some small amout of pride involved in knowing one’s capability to take care of oneself without things like the swiffer. My freshman year in college, (1995), my standard rant was about the “salad shooter,” a solution without a problem if there ever was one. Now, its the swiffer, the various cleaning foams and sprays purported to reduce effort, the myriad chemical wipes that can all be replaced with a simple washable rag. The stuff that we throw away because we are afraid to turn a couple of screws and see what’s going on inside.

  16. pambamboo March 9, 2007 at 3:10 am

    And one more thing…..method’s new mop (omop? imop?) actually works better! My impossible to clean white tile floors have never been so clean! That microfiber stuff is amazing. Plus the mops dry half is a compostable corn based dry thingy that really picks up dust and dirt. But the best part? And why I now use method whenever and wherever I can – it ALL just smells fab! No nasty chemicals.

    :)

  17. dug March 8, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    i don’t use the wet swiffer stuff, but the dry ones do a job attracting and clinging on to dirt that a broom or mop simply can’t touch. yeah, there’s a little guilt, but if you do a quick swipe around your apartment after sweeping and mopping, you’ll see what i mean. whatever, maybe i don’t need to be so clean.

  18. Chelsea March 7, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    I have had this debate many times as well, but it was regarding the fact that Swiffer adds a form of antifreeze to their products (so the chemicals don’t freeze) and there have been many reported cases of pets getting sick and dying because they walk on the floor and lick their paws, etc.
    I think that is disgusting negligence on the part of the manufacturer, and would therefor never support them even if the product I was purchasing didn’t have that particualar harmful ingerdient.
    As for the green discussion, old mops had removable, washable heads, made from natural fibers. I use a more modern version, but it has lasted me for years and my floors are spotless, nontoxic and ecofriendly.
    Chelsea

  19. Todd March 7, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    I’ve never used Swiffers, and I don’t intend to as I’m more prone to follow Kaylen’s approach of vinegar and water, therefor I’m unsure as to whether Swiffer pads are all paper or part synthetic or whathaveyou.
    In standard paper manufacturing, the combination of chlorine and wood pulp produces chlorinated organic compounds such as dioxins and furan – carcinogens.
    A synthetic sponge-mop which lasts many uses, or the use of a rag as a replacment for Swiffer pads like Shambhavi suggests, in combination with vinegar and water is far “greener” than Swiffers will ever be. Vinegar is safe for greywater systems as well.
    What happened to “reduce” and “reuse”?

    From another angle,I just asked one of my coworkers her opinion on Swiffers (she’s a single mom, single income, renter).
    -She likes them for their ease of use and never intended to use them as a “green” alternative.
    -She hates handling mops.
    -She finds that the scrubber part of Swiffers don’t work very well, especially on tough dirt (she has a 4 year old son) and in corners, therefor she still needs to get down on her knees and use the green scrubber side of a hand sponge on occasion.

    …cheers.

  20. Jill Fehrenbacher Jill March 7, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Hi Greg-

    Okay, you had a good point there and I’ve gone into Google Adsense and filtered out all the swiffer ads. I’ve filtered out some other questionable ads (for the first time) so thanks for reminding me that I can do that.

    -Jill

  21. csven March 7, 2007 at 1:50 am

    What I find surprising is that Continuum hasn’t included the “green” side of this project in the project write-up on their website:

    It all started with a simple goal: create a diverse, unique-to-category cleaning tool.

    Continuum attacked the problem scientifically and from the user’s perspective. Working with P&G’s technical staff, Continuum engineers created a clever testing apparatus that would allow the team to try numerous old and new methods for cleaning a floor. Rapid iteration of ideas uncovered a unique opportunity to improve cleaning by “entraining” dirt in either a mop or a broom or something else that was neither. For users, entrainment meant a simpler, neater way to clean versus sweeping or mopping, which involve pushing dirt (or dirty water) around as much as picking it up. With entrainment, as soon as the cleaning device hits the dirt, it captures it.

    The concepts included numerous ergonomic features to make the job of cleaning easier for the consumer. All concepts also made use of a modular architecture, which would admittedly require the consumer to assemble the product, but would allow P&G to sell the Swiffer in a box on a shelf in the cleaning products aisle, as opposed to the less prime store space given to fully assembled brooms and mops.

    P&G then took the project in-house, refining the entrainment technology.

    http://www.dcontinuum.com/content/portfolio/0/89/

  22. greg March 6, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Jill…don’t get me wrong now. I knew how and why the ads appeared, it was not an attack of hipocracy. i just found it ironic. I understand your need financial support and that’s what was meant by “the best of intentions”. An ethical stance like your own can easily be slapped in the face by a company not applying an honest filter to what they present. much like the initial topic, a guy claims a “green” swiffer without really understanding the issue. google advertises the swiffer on a site that is attacking it’s very use (the algorithm can be written to exclude keywords too). can you imagine number of free swiffers going out the door from site ads that are not attacking it’s use?
    you’ve got a site going…thanks.

  23. Shambhavi March 6, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Well, I re-outfitted my swiffer. I don’t buy the paper cleaners. And I use the regular swiffer, not the one with a chamber for more chemicals. I kit it up with whatever cotton rag I have around, and I spray the floor with nontoxic something–water and vinegar, etc. Then I “mop.” This works fantastically. And the rags can then be washed and reused.

    Ta da.

    Shambhavi

  24. Jill Fehrenbacher Jill March 6, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Hi Greg-

    I obviously look at my website many times every day, since I am constantly working on it – and I have never once seen an ad for a swiffer through google until today. As I’m I’m sure you know, Google targets through keywords, so swiffer is coming up now in our ads because we just wrote about them. Hopefully the swiffer ads will gradually fade over time, but we respect our audience enough to know that they can make their own minds about the swiffer. Regarding the google ads, remember: 1. it’s just an algorithm based on keywords, 2: we have to pay our rents too, and we need to financially support the site somehow. ;)

    -Jill

  25. Lynn March 6, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I was quite taken in by the Swiffer too. I loved how it works, but it’s disheartening how much waste it produces. It would be nice though if they were indeed built to last, and used more eco-friendly materials for the wipes. Of course, the simple, good ol’ mop will do the trick as well.

  26. greg March 6, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    what’s even funnier…this website, by accepting support from google, ends up displaying ads in the right column for free swiffers. bummer….even the best of intentions can be blindsided by financial needs and goals.

  27. kim March 6, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Can we use this opportunity to contact P&G and encourage them to expand their understanding and production of green products? Remember that our economic system woeks through manipulation/marketing – perhaps the people at P&G truly want to produce a green product and have been brainwashed by their own hype. Could a green design consultant educate them about how their product falls painfully short – and can be improved (I can see the packaging: “Now – even GREENER!”) – and thereby convince them to aim higher? Its easy to citicize – much more productive to critique: if we can educate the product producers about holistic sustainable design systems and principles and give them better solutions, we can effect much more change on a much larger scale than we could by simply calling them out on their ‘greenwashing’.

  28. jro March 6, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    ugh swiffers suck! they are cheaply made and bend if you put too much pressure, and those stupid wet wipes are never wet enough anyway, I have to sprinkle the floor with a little more water anyway to make that wipe last for a single room!! Swiffers were definately not designed to keep around either – go look in any college dumpster after move out day and count ‘em all. Its shocking for continuum to be so naive… this is why so many graduating ID students are very turned off from design firms and consultancies.

  29. George March 6, 2007 at 11:40 am

    I think the issue is making incremental improvements toward the goal and deciding priorities. Re the Swiffer, the points re detergents and water are valid, but it is disingenuous to remain silent on the chemical sheets, if in fact they do not degenerate naturally, which is unlikely. But I was stunned that at the end of your commentary you paint a false choice: “Which is more important..creating a design that people love or one that does no harm?” Isn’t that the whole point of this ocnversation, the very premise is that we can do both? It is very difficulst to sell any product solely on a green premise but happily these days consumers are encouraging great products that are green. Yes, highlight misleading representations of “green” but also let’s just get on with celebrating progress and championing the notion that the very choice you offer (“what is more important”) is exactly the wrong one.

  30. Nick Simpson March 6, 2007 at 11:27 am

    I read the article then and nearly fell for it i’m ashamed to say… “Hey, they’re only producing a bit of paper waste and think of all that hot water they’re saving!”. But then you think of all of the hot water used in the paper maunfacturing, along with the mountains of pointless waste and it suddenly clicks… The guy has one point though – you have to make green the more attractive option in more ways than trying to appeal to people’s consciences and even more than trying to make green “cool”. You unfortunately have to appeal to people’s self-interest. Make green cheaper, easier, quicker or more enjoyable and you’ve cracked it!

  31. Kaylen March 6, 2007 at 11:08 am

    *snort* I’m really concerned about the environmental impact of the couple litres of water + few tablespoons of vinegar I use to clean my kitchen floor. Better get something disposable.

  32. dino leva March 6, 2007 at 7:23 am

    Dear Jennifer,

    I think your article above is right on target,
    I have been “in the trenches” everyday coming up against this ongoing debate
    Johnson Diversery is another Corporation that is using the “greenwashing approach”
    if you need, I can email to you there ad’s so to review

    as for the swiffer, we have found that the most sustainable product to replace the “old mop stick” approach to cleaning is “micro-fiber” technology. Although, I must admit there is nothing “natural”
    they are made from Poly film
    but are “reusable” up to 300 wash cycles
    fyi
    I can also email to you the literature regarding that product as well
    if needed

    tx for the good reading

    -dino

  33. Ecoworrier March 6, 2007 at 4:32 am

    LOL , definitely greenwash.
    You could add any sort of wipe to that list ,of which there seems to be one for every job now,
    including “Organic” wipes!.
    What ever happened to the humble cloth?

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