What Sustainability Means Today

It’s interesting how the meanings of some words in the English language have evolved.

For instance, in the 1600s, the word cheater referred to someone appointed by the Crown to take title to land and other property for which there were no heirs.  But, many cheaters were dishonest.  The mistrust of cheaters is the main reason the word today refers to someone that self-servingly does not play fair.

In the 1300s, the word naughty referred to people that had “naught,” or nothing. Today it applies to people who behave badly or are mischievous. And one more. Even the word sly has evolved. In the 13th century, to say someone was sly was to mean they were bright, skillful, clever, even fun.  Today a sly person usually refers to someone that may be clever…  but in a deceitful way.

And so has the word sustainability evolved over the years.

In the 1700s, it meant “sustained yield” and referred to a practice of harvesting just enough trees each year so that the forest could naturally regenerate tree growth.  Soon, this same concept applied to animals, fish, plants, and other items used for food: take just enough, making sure to leave enough so it can naturally be replenished.

This essentially how the UN’s Brundtland Commission defined the word sustainability back in 1987 when they said sustainability referred to “meeting the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development, expanded the concept of sustainability. Now it had three parts or pillars: protecting the planet; treating workers fairly and giving back to communities; and ensuring profits are made using fair business practices.

While all these definitions of sustainability are still valid, but today the concept of sustainability appears to be taking on one more pillar and that is efficiency.

When businesses or facilities operate more sustainably, it means they are operating more efficiently. This refers to long-term changes in the way they operate so that they use less energy, fuel, water, and create less waste. And when organizations operate more efficiently, it typically means they are operating more cost-efficiently as well.

Sustainability and Efficiency in Action

To better understand the role of efficiency, let’s look at the following two examples.

Business “A” has a 20,000-square-foot facility which includes an office area as well as a large warehouse.  The company has taken several steps to operate more efficiently and this applies to their use of energy and natural resources as well as fuel for their fleet of hybrid cars, used to make deliveries.

Business “B” has not implemented any sustainability initiatives into their business operation. They have a similar sized facility and a similar number of conventionally fueled delivery vehicles.

Based on performance data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because A has adopted a number of sustainability initiatives and is operating more efficiently, the company should be able to reduce operating costs by as much as 30 percent. In this scenario, it means they may be able to save up to $15,000 annually in operating costs, possibly more.

Because “B” is not operating more efficiently, they do not have the benefit of a $15,000 savings.  They are not able to provide their customers with any discounts to win business, as “A” has managed to do with their savings.  What’s more, they do not have any “wiggle room.”

For instance, should fuel supplies be interrupted, as they were with the recent hurricanes that hit America, because “A” has hybrid cars that operate far more efficiently than traditional cars and get 50 miles to the gallon, “A” is more likely to be able to keep its doors open in a disaster. This is referred to as “risk management,” one of the key benefits of sustainablity and efficiency.

“B,” on the other hand, does not have this wiggle room. Its cars get less than half mileage to the gallon.  Because the fleet is so much less efficient, these vehicles will use up their fuel supply more quickly, leaving “B” high and dry, waiting for fuel shipments to arrive.

The bottom line is this: sustainability has a new pillar, efficiency, and the more efficiently your facility and your business are operated, the more likely you will be able to reduce costs and enjoy other benefits. Further, efficiency is an integral part of risk management.  This means your facility and your business are less susceptible to environmental pressures that can harm those less efficient organizations.

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