Household products can be a lot more dangerous than you might expect. Did you know that there are over 1,000 chemicals used in the formula to add scent to Clorox? Some of those chemicals have been linked to infertility, asthma, and are even possible carcinogens.
That’s why Emma’s Eco Clean, a woman-owned Bay Area cleaning cooperative, uses non-toxic cleaning supplies to protect the health of their employees and customers. With over 2,600 clients, the business has come a long way from its beginnings at Wages. Wages, now known as Prospera, is a nonprofit founded by two women who were cleaning houses in Palo Alto and were not happy with the poor benefits house cleaners were receiving. So, they decided to teach Latina women how to legally open a cooperative, Emma’s Eco Clean being one of many, with the goal of economically uplifting them.
Maria Rosales, one of the partial owners of Emma’s Eco Clean, was in the original co-op class back in the 90s. “We received weekly training for a year to learn how to run meetings, financials, and legal matters,” she recalls.
Whether they were unsatisfied with pay, looking for better benefits, or had an entrepreneurial mindset, everyone had their reason to join the program. Maria explains, “I always wanted to have my own business— when I was going to school in Mexico, I sold clothes to people. When I heard Wages was helping people start their business, I thought ‘you know what, I’m interested.’”
While many of the women were already housecleaners, people from all backgrounds found their niche within team. Rosales, who worked for an electronic company for 11 years prior to Emma’s Eco Clean, said, “My English was not great, and I cannot do housecleaning because I have a condition that does not allow me to do that. So, Wages offered me a job in the office.”
At the end of the program, more than 20 women dropped out, leaving a group of five to build their business. From the start, they were determined to use simple cleaning agents and vegetable-based soaps from natural brands including Seventh Generations.
“Wages published a study about how people working in cleaning were getting sick with asthma and a cough when using Clorox. We wanted to protect both the housecleaners’ and customers’ health by using safe soaps, which have the same quality clean,” Maria explains.
Starting Emma's Eco Clean
The early days were not easy; their first step was to get funded.
“To get a $10,000 loan from the bank, we had to raise $3,000,” Maria said. “Some of the ladies sold tamales and we hosted garage sales to make it happen.”
With their hard work, they secured the loan and opened in 1999. At times, the team drove an hour just to clean one house and at times and only found a couple hours of work each week.
“Luckily, we grew fast. People were hungry for eco-friendly cleaning,” Rosales recounts.
With 27 co-owners, multiple awards, and residential as well as commercial services, it’s clear that their clean approach is thriving. Their co-op model is also a strong example of the strength of many. Maria says, “We get paid but health insurance, vacation, sick time, profit distributions at the end of the year, which wouldn’t happen if we worked by ourselves.”
To learn more about sustainable labor, check out Green America’s research on everything from chocolate child labor to smartphone sweatshops.