As Americans pay more attention to sustainability and green issues in their everyday lives, fitness facility owners are doing the same at their clubs.

Although some club owners are implementing green efforts, other operators are moving more slowly into the eco-friendly movement, says Will Phillips of REX Roundtables for Executives. In 2008, Phillips started a consulting company called GreenHealthClubs.org for health club operators interested in becoming more eco-friendly. Being green isn't a top priority for many club operators, he says, because the idea is still new. Also, green products are often more expensive, and operators are still unsure about the products' effectiveness.

That uncertainty is perhaps strongest in the green cleaning products sector. Cleanliness is next to godliness in the fitness business, and not everyone is convinced that green cleaning products are as effective at killing harmful germs as nongreen products. Plus, there is some debate on the definition of green.

"There are a huge number of products that claim to be green that turn out not to be. There is no real standard to be green," Phillips says.

Phillip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology and director of microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center, New York, says what makes a product green depends on with whom you speak.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the term "green" is used broadly to refer to products and processes that are better for the environment. The word has a range of meanings that vary with the user and context. The EPA defines environmental "preferability" based on its authorities and scientific principles. (See related sidebar.)

Regardless of this dispute, Tierno says that some green products generally are less effective in killing germs than nongreen products, leaving some people at greater risk of contracting illnesses.

"Don't be green for the sake of [being] green unless the green agent was proven to do the job," says Tierno, who authored the book "The Secret Life of Germs."

That doesn't mean, however, that people should not use more eco-friendly products, he says. Microbes and microorganisms have been around for nearly 4 billion years, and people shouldn't get rid of them completely, Tierno says.

"If you look at germs in general, there are 60,000 of them, and 1 to 2 percent are potentially dangerous," he says. "We certainly don't want to eliminate all of them. Most germs are beneficial."

Some people use green cleaning products in the belief that they are not only safer for the environment, but they are also safer for the people who come into contact with them. However, a representative of a cleaning product manufacturer says that all cleaning products — green or nongreen — have warning labels on them, which means that all cleaners can be harmful to people if used improperly.

Despite the disagreement about the effectiveness of green cleaning products, some health club operators have committed to green cleaning.

"We realized that with simple changes, we could do things for the environment that were beneficial to the members and something they would love," says Hannah Kempski, marketing coordinator for Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women, Boston.

Healthworks started its green effort in September 2007 in its five clubs, initially cutting down on paper consumption. Since then, the club has expanded to using nontoxic and green cleaning products on its equipment and in its café. The staff also uses an eco-friendly product in the showers but hasn't found a green-certified cleaner effective enough for that heavy-use area, says Kempski. Organizations, such as the non-profit Green Seal, certify environmentally responsible products and services, but not all products labeled eco-friendly are certified. Healthworks still uses a special cleaning agent in high-traffic areas, but it keeps the idea of green in mind when choosing the products.

Plus One Management in New York considered going green about two years ago. Only after the club management company received input from its clients about the green efforts they would support did the company initiate green efforts — including the use of eco-friendly cleaning products — at some of its facilities, says Lemont Platt, vice president and director of operations for Plus One.

Staff and members at the more than 85 clubs have reacted positively to the eco-friendly cleaning products, he says. All of its facilities use some sort of green products, whether it is cleaning products for equipment or other resources to make the building greener.

"Some people were concerned with the way [the products] would work, mostly if they would be strong enough, but it's been positive and very appreciated," Platt says.

Member appreciation is one reason beyond environmental responsibility that club operators are considering green products, Phillips says. Health clubs that go green could become role models for their communities and help those communities become more eco-friendly, he says.

"Being green and living healthy is a significant and long-term trend," he says, adding that clubs trying to distinguish themselves by focusing on wellness and health need to focus on being green, too. After all, many people consider the eco-friendly movement to be part of better health and wellness.

GreenHealthClubs.org was designed for club owners to share the results of their green efforts.

"The thing that will convince a club owner to go green is a recommendation from another club owner," he says. "This site is a place where people can post and read comments about things like trying green cleaners that really clean."

Perhaps as more people commit to using eco-friendly cleaning products and share their experiences, and as more manufacturers improve upon the green solutions, their effectiveness and reputation will improve and their cost will decrease, opening the way for their greater use.

Tips on Using Cleaning Products

Whether a club uses green cleaners or nongreen ones, it's important to follow usage instructions for cleaning products, since the cleaning agents are effective at various speeds, according to Michael Phillips, hospital epidemiologist at New York University Medical Center.

"Most disinfectants dry at different rates," Phillips says. "One kills rapidly, and one kills at a slower rate and takes longer to be effective."

Phillip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University Medical Center, also says that different products work at various speeds, adding that many green products take longer to kill germs than nongreen products. And many products have a short residual effect lasting only seconds to minutes.

Regardless of the type of cleaning agent clubs use, one cleaning product manufacturer representative says that users do not often let the cleaning solutions sit for long enough to make the product effective because they don't read the instructions on cleaning products.

Frequency of use also is important in ensuring that cleaning products are effective, depending on how often the surfaces are touched or contaminated.

What Is Green?

The definition of what makes a product green varies from company to company, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers help in defining the term.

Clive Davies, director of the EPA's Design for the Environment (DfE) program, says that the term "green" is used broadly to refer to products and processes that are better for the environment. The word has a range of meanings that vary with the user and context. The EPA defines environmental "preferability" based on its authorities and scientific principles.

For example, the EPA allows safer products to carry the DfE label, Davies says. This mark allows consumers to quickly identify and choose products that can help protect the environment and are safer for families.

The DfE logo on products means that the DfE scientific review team has screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects. Based on currently available information, EPA predictive models and expert judgment, it is determined that the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.

Product manufacturers who become DfE partners have invested heavily in research, development and reformulation, to create a greener product, while maintaining or improving product performance, Davies says.

The DfE program has allowed use of its logo on more than 800 products. Tens of millions of recognized products are sold each year. These products are formulated from the safest possible ingredients, Davies says, and, in 2008, reduced the use of "chemicals of concern" by 237 million pounds, an improvement from 118 million pounds in 2007.