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Does "green” detailing make a difference?

October 11, 2010
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Sustainability. It’s the latest buzzword on the lips of many Americans, and it’s used in advertisements by all types of companies; from fuel companies, computer and electronics manufacturers, and even furniture stores. But what is sustainability and can you, as a detail business owner, use it to your advantage?

The definition
Sustainability is defined as using a resource at the same rate at which it can replenish itself. The detail chemical manufacturers and formulators are discovering some applications where sustainable resources, such as soybeans, corn and even parsley, can be used as replacement solvents in cleaners and degreasers.

Bio-based cleaners can be as effective and priced competitively as the standard chemical counterparts, but with some benefits:

  • Lower VOC levels;
  • Less toxic ingredients;
  • Safer for workers;
  • Can offer a marketing edge (exclusivity); and
  • They help support America’s agricultural industry.

Differentiating bio-based and green
With the lackadaisical way these terms are thrown around, it can be easy to confuse bio-based and green products. It is important for you to understand the differences, though, so that you can more clearly explain the benefits of bio-based cleaning to your customers.

Green technologies are based on human and environmental safety, whereas bio-based products must contain renewable resources. Bio-based products do have safer qualities than conventional chemicals, but just because something is made of renewable resources doesn’t mean it meets green standards.

The technology for bio-based solvents has been available for nearly 15 years, but didn’t become important until the public became aware of green cleaning. Maybe that is why many assume that bio-based cleaners are green.

Many bio-based cleaners are certified by third-party verification bodies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE), Green Seal or EcoLogo. But these certifications are not automatic and are based on more criteria than simply being sustainable products.

The uses of soy
One ingredient that has become a mainstay in bio-based cleaning technologies is methyl soyate, which is derived from soybean oil. The properties of soy chemistry are very flexible and can be used in all sorts of applications; such as lubricants, adhesives, plastics and solvents. On the opposite end of the spectrum are chemicals made from petrochemicals, which are harmful from an environmental standpoint.

There are five popular product categories in which soybean solvents can be used instead of petrochemicals. These categories are:

  • Printing ink cleaners;
  • Waterless hand cleaners;
  • Asphalt removers;
  • Form release agents; and
  • Hand lotions.

Recently, several more products and applications have been commercialized that have proven to perform as effectively as the original petrochemical-based products.

But can bio-based help your detail business?
Bio-based and soy-based products are not only sustainable, but perform as well as or better (than petrochemicals) and are also just as affordable. Economically, using soy-based chemicals supports the U.S. agricultural industry because they are derived from soybeans grown by U.S. farmers.

Bio-based products are also plentiful: There are a variety of bio-based solvents available. For example, parsley, coconut-based surfactants, corn ethanol, olive oil, lemongrass, grapefruit seed extract and even horsetail plant. This is a host of unconventional ingredients that can be used in a variety of cleaning products for detailing.

But does their use help your business?
A December 2007 study, “Solvents: A Market Opportunity Study” was re-released, listing two dozen new uses for methyl soyate; from graffiti removers, hard surface cleaners and glass cleaners to bathroom cleaners, floor cleaners and industrial degreasers. Many detail companies are looking into or have developed soy-based detail cleaners.

If you choose to use bio-based cleaners, make sure to market the advantages to your customers and incorporate it into an overall green message at your detail shop. It will give you a competitive advantage and help customers to distinguish your detail operation from dozens of others in the area. It can also be an opportunity to reach out to local media and promote the sustainability movement while also supporting your business.Bio-based products can be a feel-good opportunity for you as a detail shop operator; but the real trick is to make them work for your business through marketing and advertising opportunities.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors.
Abraham can be contacted at