Interview with Julia Seeliger


Sustainability is a subject that plays an increasingly important role for many of us, and not just in terms of our own lifestyles: the term is also being used more and more frequently by big brands and corporations. But what does running a company sustainably actually mean? Right from the beginning Julia Seeliger and Luise Zaluski knew they wanted to offer something different from what the fast-moving start-up scene offered, but that they would end up starting eco-friendly cleaning company Klara Grün is something that surprised even them. The duo now employ around 35 people as part of their mission to make Berlin a cleaner and more sustainable place and Berlin Decks is among their regular customers. We sat down with Julia to hear about Klara Grün's eco-friendly concept, how to cope with stress as a company owner and why the pair are such fans of citric acid.


Together with Luise Zaluski, you are the managing director of Klara Grün. What’s the company behind this unusual name?

Julia Seeliger: Klara Grün is an eco-friendly cleaning service in Berlin. When Luise and I founded the company about three years ago, it had a great significance for us: in an industry that is often perceived as anonymous, Klara Grün was the counter-example. The female first name is an attempt to bring some personality to the cleaning industry and refers to the word "klar" – meaning cleanliness. "Grün" relates to our "eco-fair" concept, which rests on two pillars: our approach is ecological both in terms of the services we offer and how the company itself is run. This means not poisoning the waterways with harsh chemicals and protecting the health of our employees. That is why we make our own environmentally neutral cleaning products from citric acid, sodium bicarbonate and soda – ingredients that are safe for both sewerage and our bodies. Since we are a commercial business rather than a charity, we prefer the word "fair" instead of "social". Our aim is not just to treat and pay our own employees fairly but to spread this practice to the entire cleaning industry.


How did you come to start the business?

JS: Luise and I met working at Milena Glimbovski's packaging-free supermarket Original Unverpackt. I actually come from the field of digital communication and brand consulting, while Luise was working as a corporate and strategy consultant. We ended up at Original Unverpackt after becoming tired of our old jobs. The topic of sustainability interested us and it quickly became clear that we should start a company together. That it would be in the business of cleaning – something we knew little about at the time – surprised us and really came from personal experience. Working at the supermarket we both noticed that there were lots of sustainable products on the market but few sustainable services. When we looked for environmentally-aware companies that were treating their employees well, we realised the most obvious gap was in the cleaning sector.


How did you get into what seems like quite a complex business?

JS: We entered our concept for the Businessplan-Wettbewerb Berlin-Brandenburg (BPW) (Berlin-Brandenburg Business Plan Competition) not with the intention of founding a company, but just to pursue the idea and see how a sustainable cleaning company would work. When the business and financial plan was ready, we asked an acquaintance what the next steps might be. His answer was to roll up our sleeves and get cleaning. So we followed his advice, registered as sole traders and started cleaning for well-known cafe owners and at friends’ homes in addition to our regular jobs. We realised that the work requires a lot of planning and structure: you need to learn your way around the premises and have an awareness of cleaning itself. For example, what do you need for a good all-purpose cleaner that works well on all surfaces? Besides cleaning, we spent the first months finding the right products.



How did it feel to suddenly work in an industry that is invisible to most people?

JS: We’ve all sat in a cafe having a coffee. But to suddenly be the one cleaning at 6am in the morning or 10pm at night was a real change in perspective. But in a way everyone has some thoughts on cleaning or housekeeping because we all have experience with it. So when I introduce myself as the head of a cleaning company that is committed to the environment and good working conditions, the response is always positive. But working as a cleaner myself was quite revealing: despite having approached the job as a way to improve perceptions of the industry – especially in the wake of the pandemic – I noticed that I myself had certain judgments about cleaners. Being seen as the person who cleans the toilets was not easy at the beginning, but it was an important experience. And it didn't take long for me to embrace our philosophy at Klara Grün: providing a service in a positive and self-confident way.


How did that work affect your own behaviour towards the cleaners you encounter in public spaces?

JS: When I meet a cleaner at work, I make an effort to establish eye contact and say hello. For many of us, if we encounter someone cleaning in a public toilet we tend to turn around and leave: it feels embarrassing. For this very reason, I believe that this kind of positive confrontation is very important – it’s an awareness that this is a professional doing their job just like anyone else. There are also professional reasons for this though: I want to look at how the person cleans, what kind of movements they make and what kind of tools they use.


The topic of sustainability has found its way into every area of life. A friend recently mentioned how they went to the cinema and saw how every advertisement before the film mentioned sustainability – from big car companies to clothing labels. What does "sustainable business management" mean to you?

JS: That's actually the key question we keep asking ourselves. And our view changes as the company grows. Sustainability is ultimately the top priority in every part of Klara Grün’s work: this starts with our corporate goals, whose focus is not on turnover or a certain growth rate but rather sustainability. For us as a service provider, this means keeping the number of clients and staff in proportion to ensure that our team are not overloaded and that the workload is sustainable in the long run. We also focus on long-term client relationships: we don't spend a single euro on marketing, for example. So far the work has always come to us because demand is so high, even pre-pandemic. Instead, we spend more time on direct communication with our customers, so we can hold on to their contract next year.


Sustainability for us also means training our employees: every new team member does on-the-job training with a colleague. Especially in the cleaning business, where employees are often left to their own devices from day one and learn little, it is important for us to add value and teach our people something. Not everyone has the time to address the issue of sustainability in their everyday lives. For our self-made cleaning products we work with SOLIDRINKS to reuse the glass bottles they can no longer recycle. These might not seem like the most obvious ways to be green and sustainable, but for us, they are an essential part of running the business. Of course, the cleaners themselves are ecological, and we don't run company cars. We cycle or take public transport to visit clients and have also just purchased our first e-bike. While we aren’t there just yet and there is always a need for compromise, as long as we keep thinking about sustainability when making decisions and ensure it is anchored in the company, Klara Grün is heading in the right direction.


What does a normal cleaning job look like for Klara Grün?

JS: For both commercial and private customers, a property inspection is carried out before the first cleaning visit. This is extremely important for us because it allows us to tell the Klara Grün story and increase the client’s awareness of the issue of sustainability. Even if we don’t end up working together, the visit is an opportunity for us to introduce sustainability to those who have not yet dealt with it. Time and again, clients come to us not because they necessarily want sustainable cleaning but because they have had bad experiences with other companies. Because we treat and pay our employees fairly, clients expect more reliability and higher quality standards. We share the recipes for all the cleaning products we use and sell to our clients, for instance.


I head to the clients by e-scooter, bike or public transport and spend an hour and a half visiting the premises to be cleaned. I ask a lot of questions and make suggestions for how Klara Grün can best help. Then it's back to the office, where I produce a service specification – our so-called checklist – and make the client a quote. Then my colleagues Luise and Alex schedule the respective teams and shifts. We bring all our cleaning supplies to the first appointment, order additional equipment such as vacuum cleaners as necessary, and then we're ready to go. The checklist works like a briefing for the team on-site, though we also do another walk around during the first appointment to ensure staff aren’t thrown in at the deep end on their first assignment.


Are you a 24/7 manager?

JS: In this sense it’s also important for us to be sustainable. In the beginning, Luise and I thought about this deeply and decided that the cleaning profession can only be healthier if our own daily work routine as founders and bosses is sustainable. Our own contracts stipulate a six-hour working day – an illusory goal, of course, but one that we always work towards and never lose sight of. There seems to be this dogma among founders that you have to work at least 60-hour weeks in the first two years and think that's cool. But that's not what it’s about. Passion for a cause – and that's what I have at Klara Grün – cannot be measured by the number of hours you work every week. This approach is the only way we can guarantee a healthy working environment for our employees in the long term.


You swear by citric acid: what is your ultimate cleaning tip?

JS: Citric acid is our best friend and much gentler on surfaces than scrubbing. For instance, for a tap covered in limescale, soak a cloth in some citric acid, place it around the tap and let it soak. Furthermore we use steel wool or copper sponges to remove even persistent limescale on surfaces.


If you want to find out more about cleaning, take a look at Luise's Instagram profile. There she shares experiences from her daily routine, including insights gained from cleaning up after her two small children.

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