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What is the future of green cleaning? The future is You

April 2016 — Whenever I am asked this question along with what Green Cleaning trends I see coming around the corner, I often say that the future of Green Cleaning is sustainability. When I say that, what most people including cleaning contractors think I am referring to is the traditional definition of sustainability, which is to use natural resources in such a way today that they are available for future generations.[1]

However, and as we will discuss in greater detail later, that is just one part of the sustainability puzzle. Further, when I say the future of Green Cleaning is sustainability, most cleaning contractors think I am referring to steps they can help their clients protect natural resources, reduce waste, energy, and water.

Well yes, but once again that is just one part of the puzzle. And this will increasingly be a major one because facility managers and building owners are going to be increasingly turning to their cleaning contractors to help them reduce consumption and waste.  After all, who knows their building better than the cleaning contractor?

So, when I say the future of Green Cleaning is sustainability, what I am suggesting is not only are cleaning contractors helping their clients become more sustainable, but that cleaning contractors are turning their own businesses into Green and sustainable operations as well.  This is already happening with very large cleaning contractors and has the potential of transforming the entire industry.

Now the Definitions

Before we begin, let’s get a better grasp of what Green Cleaning is and most especially what sustainability refers to, as the word is used today.  Green Cleaning can be defined as the use of effective and cost effective cleaning solutions, tools, and equipment that have a reduced impact on the user and the environment.  Noticed, we said “effective and cost effective.”  The movement would never have gotten to first base if manufacturers had not made the products as good as if not better than traditional cleaning products, as well as comparable in costs.

And we should add that Green Cleaning products today refers to more than just making and using environmentally preferable alternatives of traditional cleaning solutions and products.  Several years ago we saw the introduction of microfiber mopping systems that reduced water and chemical consumption, and more recently we have witnessed the introduction of cleaning systems that fall into a category called “engineered water.”  As the name implies, many of these systems, and there are different types, convert traditional tap water into a cleaning solution to clean surfaces, floors, carpets, fixtures, restrooms, etc.  No chemical ingredients, traditional or otherwise, are used, further helping to minimize cleaning’s impact on the environment by eliminating the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing impacts from turning them into cleaning ingredients, materials used in plastic bottles and cardboard shipping cartons, transportation and other impacts.

As to how the word sustainability is used today, possibly the best way to understand the term is to understand what a sustainable organization – such as contract cleaning company – looks like.  It would have the following three components:

  • People (social pillar). A sustainable organization ensures that its staff is treated fairly, equitably, and is properly trained. It also involves taking steps to give back to the community.
  • Profits (economic pillar). A sustainable organization is financially healthy.It makes money, because regardless of “good intentions” if it isn’t profitable all the workers, investors, suppliers, customers and others are hurt. It does this by charging fair rates, training its workers so that they can improve cleaning efficiencies helping to reduce costs, and providing superior services for their customers, to help build their businesses along with customer loyalty.
  • Planet (environmental pillar). A sustainable organization is one that constantly seek new ways to use all products more efficiently with less waste and find even more effective cleaning programs and processes that protect health while at the same time reducing the use of energy, water, and other natural resources.

The Social Pillar and the Cleaning Contractor

While all three pillars are crucial, the one that may prove most difficult for some cleaning contractors to comprehend and tackle is the social pillar. To understand why this is true, let’s take a brief look at the history of the professional cleaning industry.  Historically, it has been very price-focused. In many ways, it still is. The winning bid was the one that was the lowest. In the U.S., some government entities were actually required to take the low-bid, no matter what the service or product involved. Some still have this policy.

But emphasis on costs often had unfortunate repercussions. It resulted in cleaning contractors outsourcing work to third-parties in order to avoid employer-related taxes. Sometimes this proved effective, often it did not. It also meant contractors not providing health coverage (in the U.S.), limited worker training, etc. This resulted in poor worker morale, perpetual worker turnover, and very often staff safety issues.

Because costs for our industry is essentially labor, that was the only area that could be cut.  Eventually, astute building owners and managers woke up.  They realized they got what they were paying for, to use an old expression, and they tired of the revolving-door-janitorial-service. Paying a fair rate for professional cleaning typically meant the contractor had the resources to better pay, train, and treat their staff, and provide them with adequate benefits. This also meant greater customer satisfaction and an end to the revolving door.

We must also add that the social pillar involves the communities in which contractors serve. This encompasses such things as volunteering, charitable giving, and partnering with other organizations to help local communities.  The best example of this is the annual Green Apple Day of Services.  This is an opportunity for cleaning contractors and others in the professional cleaning industry to help schools and other educational facilities adopt Green Cleaning products and procedures, improve cleaning efficiencies, and the overall health of these facilities.

Embracing Sustainability

So now that we have a better understanding of what sustainability is all about, how does a cleaning contractor become more sustainable?  It’s not so much “doing” anything as it is “being.” It’s a culture. It’s a mindset. It becomes a shared value involving everyone that works for your company, the vendors you work with, as well as the customers you service. And it starts at the top. This is key because for any business to adopt sustainability as a way of doing business, it must begin with upper management.

From here, following two things are crucial:

Staff: We must develop a program explaining, training, and empowering staff to adopt sustainability initiatives. They are key to turning a contract cleaning service into one that promotes sustainability.  Additionally, we want to empower them to suggest new ways, procedures, policies and programs to make the company more sustainable.

Measurement: This refers most specifically to the environmental pillar. How will we know if we are using more responsibly and efficiently if we cannot measure where we are today – which becomes our benchmark – and our progress six month or a year from now. To do this, many of your customers are likely using online dashboard systems to help them measure and monitor their use of natural resources and other metrics. These are available to cleaning contractors as well and are key to ensuring the success of sustainability initiatives.

We started this article by asking what is the future of Green Cleaning.  Well, the answer is you, the cleaning contractor. The future of Green Cleaning and the future of our industry is adopting programs and procedures that improve the lives of the people that work for us, our communities, makes us financially strong, and protects our environment.

[1] While the word has a much broader meaning today, sustainability was originally defined by the 1987 United Nations Brundtland report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.



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