Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Sustainable Terms Cause Confusion

February 1, 2011

An October 2010 survey on green and sustainable issues found that most people are fairly clear about what it means when a product''s packaging says it is made from recycled materials and/or is recyclable.

The survey of approximately 2,000 U.S. adults, which was conducted specifically for marketing and public relations professionals in the food and beverage industries, found that terms such as "eco-friendly," "environmentally friendly" and "environmentally preferable" were also well understood.

Eighty-four percent of those questioned said they regularly buy green and sustainable foods and beverages.

Asked why they select these products, 45 percent of responders indicated that they believe green and sustainable products are of superior quality compared to conventional products.

Forty-three percent pointed to concerns about the environment, and 42 percent felt a green and sustainable food or beverage was safer to consume.

However, the survey also found that while the majority of those questioned were comfortable with and understood what it means for a food or beverage product to be labeled green, most remained "vague about the meaning" of terms such as "fair trade," "reduced carbon emissions" and other wording typically used to describe the sustainable features of certain products.

Digging deeper, 40 percent indicated that they had never heard of the term "solar/wind energy" and, for some reason, 37 percent indicated they would never purchase a product featuring that claim.

As to understanding sustainable claims and their importance, there was some variance.

For instance, young adults tended to understand sustainability terminology better than older people.

However, affluent consumers — the most important market for food, beverages and scores of other products — were often the people who had no understanding of the terms and, worse yet, did not understand why such practices are beneficial.

It seems that it is high time to define some of the most common terms used to describe sustainable and green products.

Doing so will both clarify these terms and their benefits and hopefully encourage consumers in all industries — including the professional cleaning industry — to select products and support manufacturers and distributors that operate their businesses in a more sustainable manner and market more sustainable products.

Included among these common terms are:

  • Triple bottom line (TBL): Companies that concern themselves with their TBL go beyond thinking solely in terms of their financial success and instead analyze their business practices in three separate areas: How they affect people, the planet and profits. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), "TBL refers to the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity." Put simply, companies that are concerned about their TBL analyze their overall social and environmental impact as well as their profitability.

  • Life cycle assessment (LCA): LCA may be the most important method for assessing the overall environmental impact of products, processes or services. This is the so-called "cradle to grave" or "manufacture to disposal" approach to analyzing the impact of a product on the environment and the toll it takes on our natural resources.

  • Environmental footprint: A product''s environmental footprint is closely related to its LCA. The term "environmental footprint" refers to the total environmental impact any company, product or service has. When used to address sustainability issues, environmental footprint refers to the amount of depletable raw materials and nonrenewable resources the company, product or service consumes and the amount of waste and emissions that are generated in the process.

  • Waste minimization: Waste minimization is the process of reducing the amount of waste produced by a company, organization or society. Waste minimization is the result of reducing and/or recycling the waste generated by a process. Waste minimization typically reduces the amount of waste headed for landfills and, by recycling materials, helps reduce the demand for nonrenewable resources.

  • Reuse, recycle, reclaim: These three terms are often confused because they do in fact overlap in many cases. Reusing a product means finding new uses for the product or its components in its current or a similar state — for instance, giving away or selling a used computer or its components instead of disposing of it. Recycling means breaking down a product or its components for use in creating new products. Reclaiming usually means finding new uses for a product in its current state. For example, when buildings are torn down, the tile, bricks or stone used in the original building are often reclaimed for use in new construction.

  • Dashboard: We all know that an automobile dashboard refers to the controls, gauges and instrumentation that help us operate a vehicle. However, when it comes to sustainability, dashboard now has an entirely new meaning. Dashboard now also refers to web-based information accessed via computer that provides real-time data and analysis about how a business is using resources such as energy, water, fuel, etc. More advanced systems also provide tips and suggestions on how to reduce the use of these and other natural resources.

Hopefully, these definitions clarify some of the terminology used to describe green and sustainable products and practices.

Since we will soon see these terms used more frequently on labels and marketing materials, it is very important that they become better understood by the general public.

This will help prevent the "greenwashing" and term misuse and confusion that still often plague green issues.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group LLC, a leading green cleaning consulting organization, and Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC. Sustainability Dashboard Tools is a web-based system that allows cleaning professionals to measure the natural resources their businesses use and the greenhouse gas emissions they generate. Armed with this information, businesses can make commonsense changes that reduce their impact on the environment. Such changes save businesses money and make them more efficient and competitive while also benefiting their facilities, employees and local community as well as the environment.