Bringing Sustainability and “Eco-Efficiency” into Professional Cleaning

In the late 1990s, a major university that had already adopted Green Cleaning initiatives decided it wanted to go a step further.  The Green Cleaning products they had been selecting were all designed to help reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment, which is what Green Cleaning is all about.

The step that they wanted to take was to bring sustainability into the picture. At that time, sustainability referred primarily to using natural resources more responsibly, so that they would be available for future generations.  The university was already doing that in a sense. Green Cleaning solutions typically are made from renewable resources.  However, to bring sustainability into their cleaning processes, they decided to do the following:

  • Transfer from traditional floor care equipment – which requires considerable amounts of chemicals – to chemical-free floor cleaning systems.  These machines use engineered water to clean floors; no chemicals are used at all.
  • Create a “chemical command center,” designed to control all cleaning solutions used throughout the university. The chemical command center was designed to dilute chemicals per manufacturer’s instructions, reducing chemical waste and water consumption.
  • To further minimize waste, they purchased cleaning solutions in 5-gallon sizes, not a common practice at the time. This helped eliminate boxes and packaging materials. Plus, it reduced the amount of fuel needed to transport cleaning solutions to the university campus.  This in turn reduced the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
  • Evaluate the cleaning solutions they were currently using with the goal of reducing the number of cleaning products selected. Going from 10 to 15 products to just two or three would once again help minimize packaging needs, the fuel necessary to transport these products, greenhouse gases, and waste. Plus, they could take advantage of large purchase discounts from suppliers, a cost savings.


All these steps did help promote sustainability.  The university reported that these actions helped them:

  • Reduce cleaning-related operating costs
  • Reduce energy and water use
  • Reduce material consumption and packaging waste
  • Reduce the amount of hazardous waste entering the waste stream. (This included materials such as lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and beryllium.)

These results are excellent and worthy goals for all cleaning professionals and building managers.  However, for the most part, these results do not address how we view sustainability today.  Sustainability today is all about efficiency.  Some experts refer to this as extension of economic efficiency or, abbreviated as, “eco-efficiency.”

Eco-efficiency is a combination of sustainability and efficiency. It refers to long-term practices and procedures designed to meet the current needs of an organization, but with less impact on the environment and the use of natural resources, all of which invariably result in cost savings.

A perfect example of eco-efficiency was mentioned earlier.  Instead of using traditional, chemical-using floor scrubbers, the university began selecting floorcare equipment that eliminated the need for cleaning solutions. By doing so, they were:

  • Reducing cleaning’s impact on the environment, a Green Cleaning attribute
  • Eliminating the need for containers, packaging materials, and fuel to transport cleaning solutions, all of which addressed the more traditional concept of sustainability
  • Reducing costs because the cleaning solutions necessary for floor care were no longer needed.

So how can cleaning contractors bring eco-efficiency practices into their business operations? The first step requires that top management is behind the program.  For most cleaning contractors, this means a change in direction and changes in course must always start at the top.

Next, we need to take a very close look at purchasing. What cleaning solutions can we eliminate? Selecting fewer cleaning solutions not only can reduce costs, but it minimizes training and helps promote worker safety.

Further, which products can be purchased in bulk containers? Where can we eliminate the use of cleaning solutions entirely, such as transferring to engineered water cleaning systems?

From here, we can begin looking into our entire business operations.  Sustainability and eco-efficiency are part of a journey.  Once it starts, and savings are realized, it has an interesting habit of growing on its own.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and known in the professional cleaning industry as the father of green cleaning and the industry leader, turning sustainability into cost savings.  He can be reached at