What a Sustainability-Focused Cleaning Contractor Looks Like

Published in a publication serving the Australian and New Zealand Cleaning Industries

A major university has decided that because it is embracing sustainability practices, it wants all of its vendors and those that do business with the university to do the same. Sustainability, as we are using the term here, refers to steps an organization is taking to protect the environment; treat employees fairly and give back to the local community; and ensure profits, which are strongly encouraged, are derived through fair and equitable business practices.

To enforce this policy, the university requires every new vendor to fill out a supplier sustainability questionnaire. The university has many reasons for doing this, but primarily it comes down to this: if the university is now very involved in sustainability, why would it want to work with vendors that have no interest in, for instance, conserving water, turning to alternative power sources where possible, or using hybrid or electric cars?

University administrators want everyone who works with them to be on the same page, part of what we might call a “sustainability camaraderie.” They view sustainability initiatives as spokes in a wheel. The university’s sustainability program is only as strong as the weakest spoke, and the administrators certainly do not want the whole carriage falling out due to one vendor’s operations.

To be sure, this university is not alone. Many worldwide retailers based or having locations in Australia now require vendors to demonstrate sustainable practices; corporations big and small around the world now have sustainability questionnaires wherever they have offices. Even some countries with consulates or similar office operations in different parts of the world have begun to ask their vendors to fill out a questionnaire.

So, what kinds of questions are on this supplier sustainability questionnaire? That depends on the originating organization. Some questions are surprisingly complicated and focus on total business operations. Others are more direct and easier to understand. Here are some of the questions this university asks:

  • Does your company have a Green Transportation Plan for your operation? (This would include carpooling, public transportation, alternative modes of transportation.)
  • What type of sustainable packaging/shipping materials do you use? Reusable? Recyclable? Biodegradable?
  • What does your company do to minimize the environmental costs associated with shipping? Combine deliveries? Use GPS systems to select the best routes that use the least amount of fuel? Use a bike courier service for local delivery?
  • Does your company have an environmental policy statement?
  • Has your company ever been cited for noncompliance of an environmental or safety issue?
  • What programs do you have in place or plan to implement for promoting resource efficiency?
  • Does your company have web-based materials available documenting your “Green” initiatives?
  • If you are providing a product, does the manufacturer of the product that you are bidding/proposing have an environmental policy statement?
  • Has an environmental life-cycle analysis of the product that you are bidding/proposing been conducted by a certified testing organization, such as Green Seal?


Will Cleaning Contractors Be Next?

Universities and other organizations hire a variety of contractors, and this policy requiring vendors to submit a sustainability questionnaire or sustainability statement also applies to cleaning contractors. Already these requirements are showing up in requests for proposals (RFPs), also referred to as a tender.

If you have not encountered this for yourself, just wait. The Australian government has recently published guidelines as to how to determine the sustainability practices of a service provider, which can be far different from authenticating the sustainability practices of a manufacturer, for instance.1

According to the government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities, there are two main questions that an organization can explore to help determine if the janitorial service provider they are considering hiring is practicing sustainability.

For the hypothetical organization AUS Corporation, the questions would look like this:

  1. Will the specific services to be provided to AUS by the cleaning contractor reduce AUS Corporation’s overall environmental and social impacts?
  2. Are the operations of the cleaning service provider itself sustainability-focused?

In other words, AUS should know if the janitorial service provider has implemented sustainability initiatives similar to its own.

They go on to say:

For procurement of a one-off piece of work, such as a onetime cleaning project, AUS might decide to focus on the sustainability impacts associated with the delivery of that one particular service.

However, with procurements covering long-term arrangements, such as a cleaning contract that extends for one or more years, AUS should determine if the contractor’s sustainability programs will help AUS meet its own sustainability goals. In this case, it makes sense to consider the contractor’s overall operations as well as the service being delivered.

Once again, a sustainability questionnaire will be beneficial.

Let’s Take a Closer Look

We have the general concept of what an Australian organization will be looking for when it comes to hiring a service provider. Let’s dive deeper now to see more specifically how an organization such as our imaginary AUS can determine if a janitorial service provider has sustainability goals that match its own. This should give you an idea of what to expect now or in the future.

AUS could ask the janitorial service provider questions such as:

  • What steps do you take to improve the energy/resource efficiency of your activities associated with the delivery of the contracted service?
  • Do you have a documented program addressing waste reduction or elimination associated with the delivery of the contracted service—for example, recycling?
  • What steps have you taken to reduce travel and transport—for example, carpooling of custodial workers?
  • Do you have an environmental or sustainability policy in place or a program/system under development with a timeline for implementation?
  • Is there a strategy/plan in place to achieve water reduction targets or a program/system under development with a timetable for implementation?
  • Is there a strategy/plan in place to achieve waste reduction targets or a program/system under development with a timeline for implementation?
  • Do you have any initiatives in place that support disadvantaged or marginalized groups in the community—for example, placing contracts with social enterprises or providing training/employment/mentoring opportunities?

A Heads-up

Our goal here is to help Australian cleaning contractors have a better idea of what is evolving with sustainablity and in the types of facilities, and with the kinds of companies, they will want to do business with in the future. Contractors should also realize that not only can sustainablity open doors for them, but it can also help them operate their own companies in a leaner more cost effective manner.


Stephen P. Ashkin is president of the Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Green cleaning and sustainability. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” is on the board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).

He is also helping the professional cleaning industry turn sustainability into cost savings. He can be reached at steveashkin@ashkingroup.com



1 Commonwealth of Australia 2013, report prepared by ECO-Buy Limited, Level 4, 460 Bourke Street, Melbourne VIC 3000; www.ecobuy.org.au.