Now That We’re Green, Does it Mean we are Also Sustainable?

By Steve Ashkin of The Ashkin Group

For all the manufacturers and cleaning contractors starting to use the terms Green and sustainable interchangeably, all I can say is “Hold on there, tiger. Green and sustainable are not the same.”

It is understandable that as the Green and sustainable evolutions proceed, the two terms would be considered equivalent. But the truth is, they are related but certainly not the same.

Of the two, the term Green to describe cleaning products, cleaning programs, and the like is far more common. This term focuses on the environmental and health impacts of the products and equipment we manufacture or use to clean and maintain our customer’s facilities. The ultimate goal of a Green cleaning product or tool is to reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment and human health.

While sustainability is closely related to Green and often references the fact that the product is made using renewable resources, it encompasses a far broader picture. Sustainability can almost be considered a social equity issue because it addresses such things as the philanthropy of the company making or using the product, if workers at the company are treated fairly and paid accordingly, and if the manufacturer or service provider is engaged and working for the betterment of their community. This references the three key components of sustainability:

  • People
  • Planet
  • Profits (businesses are intended to make a profit; a non-profit sustainable organization operates more efficiently to cut costs and improve operations)

To further explain the difference, it might be best to give a totally fictitious example. Let’s say that manufacturer “A-Plus” has just released a new Green cleaning product that has been certified by a reputable organization, has a reduced impact on health and the environment, has proven to be effective, is cost competitive, and is made totally of renewable resources.

Sounds great, but let’s look a little deeper. It turns out the actual making of this Green cleaning chemical is handled by a company in a far-off country. This means it must be transported over a greater distance than something manufactured locally or even within the country, which increases the amount of fuel necessary to deliver the product as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Now let’s go a little deeper. This is still an imaginary scenario but examples of what we are about to discuss do occur throughout the world. It turns out that our manufacturer, A-Plus, turns a blind eye to the fact that workers at the outsourced manufacturing plant are paid less than other workers in the country for the same type of work, often must work long hours without a break, and are working in conditions that by most standards would be considered unsafe and unhealthy. Also, the outsourced manufacturer is known or suspected of hiring very young children and may even have slave labor.

The product is Green, but is it sustainable? Far from it. A Green cleaning product is designed to have no negative impacts on the environment or health. A sustainable cleaning product is designed to do the same, but also have a positive impact on the people and community in which it is manufactured.

The Take-aways

Hopefully this has clarified some issues and you understand Green and sustainable are not the same. In the future, should you consider selecting a cleaning product labeled “Green and sustainable,” try to determine if the company is just using the terms as marketing tools or if they can provide documented proof that the product, from manufacturing to delivery, has addressed environmental as well as social equity issues.

For cleaning contractors, the terms Green and sustainable are also yours to use as long as your company is truly Green and sustainable. Are workers treated and paid fairly? Are you taking steps to better your community? Are the products you use safer for the environment and building occupants? If the answer is yes, and, lest we forget you are making a comfortable profit, then, more likely than not, yours is a Green and sustainable company.