Throughout the years, I have had the pleasure of attending and presenting at trade shows catering to the commercial cleaning industry. During that time, I have also witnessed the industry become greener and more sustainable.
However, what I am finding is that many cleaning technicians—in addition to many cleaning contractors and even facility managers—are unclear about the difference between green and sustainable. In fact, many people assume green and sustainable are the same thing. However, they are not.
Green tends to focus solely on products—cleaning solutions, tools, equipment—as well as cleaning procedures and methods. A certified green-cleaning solution, for example, would need to meet the standards and criteria established by independent, third-party organizations in order to be certified. This means the product has a reduced impact on the user, building occupants, and the environment.
While sustainable cleaning options include the use of green cleaning solutions, products, and equipment, that is just one leg of what sustainability is all about. In many cases, just being green will suffice.
But if an organization does decide to take the next step, it must realize that sustainability is much broader and comprehensive, and takes into consideration how the company does business. There are two other legs of sustainability to consider here: people and profit.
The three legs of sustainability are often referred to as the triple-bottom line. The first leg, "planet," we have already discussed above. The term “people” involves social equity and human resource issues. This includes such things as paying workers a fair living wage for their services; providing health care; and ensuring safe working conditions, hiring practices that are nondiscriminatory, and programs that help with employee advancement.
The “people” component has historically been a problem area in many organizations, including in the professional cleaning industry. Many workers, for instance, are hired on a part-time basis so companies do not have to provide them with health insurance. While it is true our industry is very competitive, hiring part-time workers would not be a sustainable practice.
The “profit” leg of sustainability is key to the entire triple-bottom line. We cannot expect a contract cleaning company, or any organization for that matter, to operate, address the needs of its workers, and take steps to protect the planet if it cannot sustain itself. In fact, the first piece of having a sustainable business is having a business, which requires profits. The organization should make a fair and reasonable profit by charging adequately for its services as well as implementing practices that can help reduce costs, such as improving efficiencies. Taking a broader look at profit, the term can also apply to the economic benefits the company provides for its community.
Finally, while it is not part of the triple-bottom line, an organization’s sustainability program must include transparency. There is a growing requirement for organizations that claim to be sustainable to report what they are doing, including how they run their operations; the types of cleaning tools, chemicals, and equipment they use; and their financial, environmental, and social efforts.
Transparency is becoming a much bigger and more important issue in all types of businesses and organizations. For instance, in 2011, only 20 percent of companies in Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500—a U.S. stock market index—published a sustainability report. By 2014, that number jumped to 75 percent. Because of this, I predict that increasingly, cleaning service providers of all types will soon be reporting on their sustainability efforts.