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The different aspects of sustainability.


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How many facilities managers and buildings managers have a clear view of the concept of ‘sustainability’, and what it means to their business? Quite admirably, when a major American cleaning company surveyed the attitudes of buildings managers, nine in ten said that they considered sustainability issues to be important for their business… but then one in three admitted that they didn’t really know what the subject was all about. In the UK, the Cleaning Services Support Association has run its own research, and suspects that while both the cleaning industry and its client companies do have a reasonable appreciation of the subject; they may well be concentrating too much on only one aspect of it.

What does sustainability really mean?

In terms of industrial cleaning, what does ‘sustainability’ really mean? There is a standard glib definition of the term, which talks of ‘practices that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs’.It was Procter and Gamble who surveyed American buyers on this last year and found that nine in ten reckoned the concept of sustainability in cleaning operations is important for their business… but one in three confessed to being confused about what it all means.

“I think research in Europe would probably give exactly the same answer, which is no surprise,” says Max Walker, 3M’s Business Manager for Building and Commercial Services. The danger with these issues is that they can quickly become a bandwagon, and a bandwagon brings a whole range of suppliers making claims, and that gives you a confused marketplace.”

Interestingly, the 3M viewpoint goes further than the obvious environmental reasoning. “Our perspective is that there are three clear sections to sustainability – economic success, environmental protection, and broader social responsibility. It is too easy to miss the important fact that if you are to run a sustainable business successfully, then you have to do a good economic job – because, if you rely too much on the goodwill aspect of desirable issues, then you can over-concentrate on them to the detriment of your business. However, if you accept that sustainable practice and economic success can work hand-in-glove, then you can achieve a continuing sustainable practice.”

At the Cleaning and Support Services Association, director-general Andrew Large agrees that there is more to sustainability than is often realised. He confirms that most of his members think first of environmental considerations, and says this simply means that he has to work all the harder to promote the other benefits of sustainability. “From our new report, I see that 60% of our members feel that environmental issues are the most important part of sustainability. They dominate, and I think the reason that some buyers have fallen prey to the concept that ‘environmentalism is everything’ in sustainability is because it is easier for suppliers to sell around an environmental message.

“This misses a lot of other issues, so we have to start pushing people to look also at things like the ‘social sustainability’ issue – that is, employment conditions, health and safety, and training. These ‘people issues’ are extremely important in the cleaning world, because cleaning is a personally delivered service, and staffing accounts for some 75% of industry costs,” he continues. “To reduce staff churn and so on is not seen as a sustainability issue – but it is. It is also clear that most buyers do not regard the big current issue of ‘daytime cleaning’ as a social sustainability issue – but there are a vast number of reasons why it is.”

Why should businesses care about sustainability?

It is useful for a warm glow and looks good in corporate PR, but does it actually do business any good? The 3M argument is that there are practical benefits all down the line. “Back in the 1970s, we developed the ‘pollution prevention pays’ concept, the ‘three Ps’,” says Max Walker. “We reduced volatile organic compounds by 96 per cent, greenhouse gasses by 77 per cent, waste by 68 per cent, and energy by 27 per cent - and it has also saved us billions of dollars.

“Whether a customer company wants to be sustainable for altruistic reasons is not for us to dictate, but we do put forward the point that good practice brings economic benefits. If you choose your suppliers and your products correctly, and you take a total-life cost model for your sourcing activities, then you are going to save money in the long term. This is not about the obvious cost price of a product. The broader viewpoint, at its simplest, might be that calculating the long-term benefits of a product which either lasts longer, or which you use less, and the effect this has on your labour costs, is going to do you more good than looking at a price tag.”

The benefit of the sustainable contract cleaner.

The CSSA has recently been thinking about how to demonstrate the benefit of engaging a sustainable cleaning contractor. Andrew Large continues: “There is a big issue of consistency – no point in you having a sustainability policy if you hire a contractor who doesn’t! However, what we have now found is that it is the contractors in the cleaning industry who are driving the clients on sustainable issues, by talking about minimising waste, about using the correct machinery and dosing systems, and showing how this in turn maximises cost-efficiency.

“This is not really about costing less or costing more, but ‘costing different’. However, something we have exposed in consultation with client groups is that many of them are only looking at costs from one point – the buyer has a direct incentive to cut the cost of procurement, which allows the man at the top to make all the right noises, but the poor infantry at the working end have to take the effect of the cut.”

If the client accepts the argument for sustainability, how can the professional buyer identify which products really are manufactured on sustainable principles, and decide whether they are good enough? Some intriguing research has discovered that half of professional buyers do believe that cleaning products can be both effective and respectful to the environment – but one in three think that green products are not good enough, and one in five is not sure! Worse, 50% of buying decision-makers say it is difficult to tell which products are green and which are ‘pretending to be’. There is certainly a widely held belief that some products marketed under environmental credentials are not of the best quality.

“Yes,” says Andrew Large at the CSSA, “a lot of people have wasted money on products explicitly marketed as eco-products, and have discovered that they simply do not work – the cleansers simply do not cleanse, or get the surface clean. A lot of these products have come into commercial use through the domestic market, and in commercial use, they do not work.

“The interesting thing is that this has not put the corporate client off the concept of sustainability – what it has done is drive them back to the source of supply, looking for suppliers who really have thought the subject through… and that’s not a bad thing at all.”

At 3M, Max Walker has come across the same situation. “There is a doubt about the legitimacy of some product claims out there. It is very hard for even a professional buyer to cut through all the claims, and for sure, there are some that are a little suspect. The whole industry has a responsibility, and the EU has just launched a cleaning industry sustainability programme to train businesses in understanding the subject. This gives a company like us the opportunity to step up a gear in proving that buyers can trust what we say – judging the ethics of suppliers is not always easy to do, and I do hope the realisation that we have a big reputation to protect will help inspire confidence in what we claim!”

What’s the value of approval marks?

The major ‘evidence’ of a product’s credentials is usually an ‘approval mark’ of some kind, awarded by some relevant authority. Typically, the AISE, the big European cleaning association, keeps referring to the appearance of its Charter Mark, but there are many others. Which marks have any meaning for a buyer?

“This is an extremely important question,” responds Max Walker at 3M. “A plethora of approval marks does not help solve the confusion, and there are also evolving regulations, which confuses the issue even further. There are so many organisations and methods and labels, it is no wonder that the customer asks: ‘what are they all talking about?’.

“We have many products with clear benefits in sustainability, and have chosen not to apply to put any label on them, because there are just too many labels to choose from. So, we are doing some research to find out what labels the customers recognise, whether they find the question of approval marks are important at all, and if so, which ones they trust. We may opt to label in the future depending upon what our customers tell us.”

This puzzle has also been taking up the time of the CSSA. “That AISE Charter Mark is for the ‘big soapers’ – the Unilevers and the Procter and Gambles,” says Andrew Large. “It’s a big domestic issue, and you see the mark in Tesco, but not so much in business and corporate cleaning. There is an EU eco-mark, and there’s quite a lot about cleaning products on the public-procurement part of the EU website – but the problem is that with any one mark you often get only half of the story.”

A good example of this, says the CSSA, is the issue of concentrated chemicals, which can carry an approval mark to show that they have saved water usage. “Is moving the water issue from the point of manufacture to the point of use, a good thing?” asks Andrew Large. “In terms of transport it certainly is, because you’re moving less goods around - but then, if you’re using the concentrates in London, with its creaky old Victorian water system and leaks everywhere, you begin to ask – where is it more efficient to consume the water? “So the important thing about any approval mark is – make sure you have the whole story.”

More information in Green Credentials PDF(168KB)

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