What makes a sustainable cleaning contractor?

10 January 2017

Stephen P. Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group,  explains how cleaning contractors can become more sustainable and why it is so important to the future of their business

A large high-tech company in the United States has set a goal of becoming one of the most sustainable companies in the world. To help them accomplish this, the company leaders asked their cleaning contractor to suggest ways they can reduce consumption related to cleaning, waste and water, with little or no impact on the thousands of employees working in their corporate complex.

Among others, one of the contractor’s suggestions was to find ways to reduce the number of plastic liners used in the corporate facility. This would not only reduce waste, promote sustainability, and help reduce the use of natural resources, but also help save the company a significant sum of money...considering that as many bins and bin liners are used in the facility as there are staff.

A pilot programme was started in one department. Employees were instructed that all dry rubbish that could not be recycled was to be tossed into bins with no liners. All wet or significantly soiled rubbish was to be disposed of in bins with liners. Bins were marked accordingly. 

The pilot programme continued for six months. No one actually knew how well it would work. The company and the contractor were concerned that employees would pay attention to the programme initially but soon go back to their old ways, tossing dry, soiled, and/or wet rubbish in any nearby bin. Surprisingly, however, not only did employees follow the programme, but in time many were making suggestions for how to improve it. Needless to say, the company and contractor incorporated the programme throughout the facility – a big step toward reducing waste, becoming more sustainable, reducing costs, and putting a big feather in this contractor’s cap.

More than being green

This cleaning contractor is very sustainability focused, not only helping its customers develop sustainability initiatives in their facilities but doing the same in its own business operations. However, in the eyes of this cleaning contractor, there is far more to sustainability than just reducing waste and protecting natural resources. And this is what all cleaning contractors adopting sustainability initiatives must realise.

For this contractor, the company’s sustainability programme applies directly to its treatment of staff. Along with ensuring that its employees have adequate healthcare coverage (which would not apply to the UK), the company has career development programmes so workers can make their way up the corporate ladder; has employment practices that include work/life balance programmes; offers incentive programmes; pays fair wages; and has an ongoing safety and cleaning training programme. 

Worker accidents are a rarity at this company. And employee turnover, which is a chronic problem in the U.S. professional cleaning industry, is far below the nationwide average.

This firm was started by a Spanish-speaking immigrant more than 30 years ago. Now that the company is so successful, the owner feels an obligation to support a number of educational programmes that help people learn English – no matter their native language – and also works with schools to help teach business and entrepreneurial skills to immigrants. 

While the owner is doing this because he remembers the many difficulties he encountered not being able to speak English and how he had to learn business skills by "trial-and-error", this is also an example of how a company can help its local community, which is another key element in sustainability.

Shared values

Another big benefit this firm has realised is that it would never have been hired by this high-tech company if it were not already practicing sustainability in its own daily operations.

What’s happening is major companies around the globe no longer want to simply hire a cleaning contractor; they want to “partner” with them. This means they are looking for like-minded vendors that have the same values as they do. This trend is likely to grow, which means astute cleaning contractors that wish to gain large, sustainability-focused clients will need to put their own suggestions into practice, and the sooner the better.