Cleaning, Colors, and Sustainability

In a relatively quick period of time, the professional cleaning industry in North America and parts of Europe has evolved significantly. After taking the better part of two decades to transfer from conventional to Green cleaning, it has taken just a couple of years for the industry to raise the bar and embrace sustainable cleaning.

However, many cleaning contractors—along with building owners and managers—may still wonder what sustainable cleaning is all about. A primary facet of sustainability is using natural resources in such a way that we ensure they are available for future generations.

It is easy to see how this applies in cleaning. Many conventional cleaning products are made with petroleum byproducts. Most Green-certified cleaning products contain no petroleum. Oil is not a renewable resource, so simply switching to an environmentally preferable product is a big step toward sustainable cleaning.

However, the definition of sustainability has evolved in a way that will impact not only cleaning products and tasks but the ways many cleaning contractors operate their businesses. For instance, today a sustainable company, whether a cleaning company or a bank, can be defined as one that generates a profit for all major stakeholders (usually this means the business owner), while protecting the environment and improving the lives of those with whom it interacts.

This is the “triple bottom line,” a phrase coined in 1994 by the United Kingdom’s John Elkington, which is often referred to as the three Ps: profits, planet, and people.
Business Operations

So what does this mean for how a cleaning contractor operates his or her business? Let’s examine how each component of the new definition of sustainability applies.

Profits: Anyone who operates a contract cleaning company does so to make a living and earn profits from the business. As long as this is done honorably and adhering to local laws and regulations, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is the foundation of the free-enterprise system, and this is why it is recognized as an essential element of sustainability.

Planet: We have already addressed one way cleaning contractors can become more sustainable when it comes to the environment: by using Green cleaning products. But there are many other ways as well. For example:

Recycling where possible.

Purchasing cleaning chemicals in bulk sizes to reduce packaging and transportation needs.

Using fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Routing” accounts so that jobs in the same general area of a city are scheduled in adjacent time periods, saving fuel and energy and releasing less pollution into the air.

Using newer cleaning equipment including vacuum cleaners and carpet extractors approved by organizations such as the Carpet and Rug Institute to ensure that they meet specific cleaning standards, operate more efficiently, and save energy and water.

People: The “people” component is a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organization is toward its own staff as well as its community. More specifically, it refers to fair, ethical, and beneficial business practices toward employees, community, and country in which a business operates. As to workers specifically, this includes such things as paying them a fair, living wage and providing adequate training so that they can perform their jobs both effectively and safely.

This isn’t to say that cleaning contractors in decades past were concerned only about profits; nor does it mean that companies intentionally acted unethically or to the detriment of their workers, their communities, or the environment. Instead, it just means that we now have a greater understanding of how all types of businesses and business operations can negatively — and positively — impact sustainablity, the environment, and the world we create for ourselves.
Color Coding Sustainability
A key part of making cleaning more sustainable involves helping customers make their facilities more sustainable overall. One way this is can be accomplished is by employing a new color-coding system in cleaning.

Color coding is certainly not new to cleaning. Some “specialist cleaning systems” developed more than two decades ago were the first to use color coding. These systems were designed to designate the use of certain cleaning tools, equipment, and procedures in specific areas of a facility. The goals were to help improve worker productivity and efficiency and to stop the spread of contamination.

For instance, a red label on a microfiber mop or cleaning cloth indicated the product was to be used, in this case, only for cleaning restroom toilets and urinals. A blue color dot, on the other hand, would indicate the tool or equipment was to be used in more common, low-risk areas, such as on tabletops and office desks.

Similarly, some facilities are now working with cleaning professionals to adopt a color-coding system to promote sustainability. For the most part, it focuses on power users and which ones should or can be turned off at the end of the business day, which should remain on, and which require further investigation. These are examples of what different colors indicate in one facility:

Red on office lights and electrical devices means they should be turned off at the end of the business day.

Green on power outlets or pieces of equipment means they are to be left on after work hours/on weekends.

Yellow indicates the cleaning professional must have permission to turn the equipment off. This might be appropriate for computer systems that may need to be left on some days but not necessarily on others.

Blue indicates that the power source is on a timer and will turn off all power on its own at a designated time.

We began by discussing how, after a considerable length of time, the professional cleaning industry has successfully transferred from conventional to environmentally preferable cleaning. We also indicated that in a relatively short time, it has evolved once again, from Green to more sustainable cleaning. Something else closely related to this evolution has occurred as well: cleaning professionals are playing an increasingly strategic role in customer building and business operations.

Not only are cleaning professionals responsible for the appearance of a facility, but they also help protect the health of building users and reduce the environmental footprint of the entire location. The professional cleaning industry has come a long way in the past 20 years. Its role has become all the more important, and customers are finally starting to realize this.


Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry and CEO of Sustainability Tool LLC, a web-based dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.
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.