On Making Green Cleaning the Norm — Not the Exception

June 12, 2015

We were thrilled to catch up with Rachel Gutter, the director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools. Rachel is a tireless crusader for greener schools, a true expert on the topic and an engaging speaker full of convincing stats, compelling stories and smart advice. She’ll be speaking at our Green Clean Schools Summit in Seattle this July.

Here’s what she had to say about the intersection of cleaning and green building design, the importance of teachers and the state of green cleaning today.

You visit schools all over the country. What’s going on with green cleaning out there in the field?
I’ve collected amazing stories over the years that show the tremendous impacts of green schools. The immediate benefits these schools have realized from the implementation of green cleaning programs include things like fewer asthma attacks and fewer respiratory issues for students and staff. I’ve also heard a lot of stories about where green cleaning programs can intersect with building and design. And it can actually change some of the decisions you are making about the materials you choose to put in these new schools. Some schools are opting for a hard surface that can be cleaned with much less invasive chemicals with much healthier results. This sort of decision-making translates into majorly reduced costs.

You used to be a teacher. How does that influence your work crusading for healthier schools?
I come from three generations of teachers. My grandmother taught in a one schoolroom classroom and my mother has permanent lung damage from working in a mold-infested local school. My sister is a newly minted teacher whose first two classrooms had no windows. Teachers are these incredibly valued members of society who we are constantly subjecting to these environments that in many ways don’t support learning but also get in the way of learning.

[After teaching for six years] I started working for an interior architecture firm and building out the sustainability element of the practice. When I started to really understand the impact that indoor environments have on human health I wanted to take it back to schools. It jumped out to me as something communities could actually take action on. As more and more parents are feeling disenfranchised and unable to affect their kids’ education, this is a place where they can have a big impact and where students can see results.

Why do you think that is?
We talk about the things we can do to improve education, but this is a $542 billion problem. (That’s what we estimate it to take k-12 public schools to a place where they meet state safety and health standards.) Still, it’s something we can actually start to influence and change. The students can grasp that. They can turn off the lights when they leave the room. There’s waste-free lunch, recycling, or making sure none of the teachers are asking students to donate bleach wipes. The can make an impact on their little section of earth.

What are you looking forward to most about the Green Clean Schools Summit?
I’m always really excited to be on the ground with practitioners and I think that peer-to-peer dialog is just so important. Green cleaning in schools is fast progressing from being a leadership moment to being the baseline. At this point I feel like there aren’t barriers anymore. Now it’s time to start seeing schools pick this up en masse. We’ve dispelled the myths. It’s about connecting those who have done it with those who haven’t done it to make green cleaning more the norm and and less the exception.

It’s not too late to register to attend the Green Clean Schools Summit and hear more from Rachel and other green cleaning crusaders.