What’s in a Name?

Why it’s necessary to distinguish sustainability from green cleaning

Throughout the years, different definitions for green cleaning have been put forward, but in the early 1990s, a universally accepted definition was agreed upon. This was based on an executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton that defined green cleaning as:

“The use of products and services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products and services that serve the same purpose.”

This was a very easy definition to understand and one of the reasons environmentally preferable products and procedures became acceptable by the early 2000s.

Why Define

Definitions are crucial because they help establish a common understanding of a concept or subject, especially when it is new. A clear, understandable, and decisive definition of green cleaning allowed everyone, including cleaning professionals in addition to building owners and managers, to be on the same page when discussing or reading about the topic.

Today, green cleaning is common terminology within the professional cleaning industry, but as the industry continues to evolve, it is often mistaken for “sustainability,” which has similar components, but is not the same. This is why we need a clear definition of sustainability, as well.

Defining Sustainability

Sustainability is a bit more complicated to define. The first definition of sustainability, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” was introduced in the late 1980s by the United Nations Brundtland Commission. This definition was easy to understand and was quickly adopted.

But today, the term sustainability encompasses much more. Along with using natural resources in such a way that we ensure their availability for use by future generations, sustainability also refers to how businesses interact with their local communities; treat their staff to promote longevity in the workplace; and protect the environment above and beyond the responsible use of natural resources.

Incorporating Community

The word “community” should be included as part of “sustainability’s” definition. A business that has adopted sustainability initiatives is one that:

  • Provides fair wages, health care benefits, opportunities for staff advancement, and a safe working environment to build a robust and healthy community;
  • Is externally focused and concerned about how the organization impacts and benefits the larger community;
  • Reinvests in the community by sponsoring and encouraging staff volunteerism, philanthropy, and mentorships;
  • Takes steps to eliminate pollution and any practices that may negatively impact the area in which the business operates;
  • Inspires leadership within the community;
  • Is financially viable and profitable.

Note that none of the preceding objectives are viable if a company does not have a stable economic base.

A New Definition

With these points in mind, and considering the much broader way we now look at sustainability, I have come up with the following definition:

“A business that practices sustainability is one that cares about our communities today and the health and welfare of our communities into the future.”

This definition is clear, concise, understandable, and, I hope, inspiring. However, I am not the only one making the decision on how to define sustainability.

Lately, I have been encouraging more members of our industry to step up and take on leadership roles when it comes to sustainability. One way to do this is by offering suggestions on how to define sustainability.

I want to open the door to an industrywide discussion of this issue. Please feel free to contact me at: Together, we can create a definition for sustainability that helps move the industry forward, just as we did 25 years ago with green cleaning.



Posted On June 7, 2017

Stephen Ashkin

Chief Executive Officer, The Sustainability Dashboard Tools, LLC

Stephen Ashkin is CEO of The Sustainability Dashboard Tools, LLC. The Sustainability Dashboard is a reporting system that measures and monitors energy, water, and fuel consumption to help reduce environmental impact and cost. For more information, email

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