Asking the right questions

What purchasers need to know about sustainable cleaning—(From the Jan/Feb 2012 print edition)

February 29, 2012
by Jacob Stoller

Every organization needs to keep its facilities clean, so cleaning methods and products that are friendly to the environment and safe for workers should be part of any organization’s sustainability strategy.

Vendors, in response to growing demand, have moved ahead rapidly in this field, developing green products that are effective and no more costly than their non-green predecessors. As well, sustainable cleaning practices can mean less energy use, less physical stress on workers, and longer-lasting facilities.

“I work with cleaning companies that do a quarter of a billion dollars in sales,” says Bill Garland, joint managing director at Daniels Associates, and facility industry expert, “and every one of them will tell you the costs have gone down by going green.”

Finding the green path, however, may not be as easy as it looks. Claims are abundant these days, but in many cases, they can’t be substantiated. Here are four straightforward questions that will help purchasing professionals separate the legitimate players from the “greenwashers”.

Are your products and services certified?
Nobody has the resources to test cleaning products or monitor the work practices of a cleaning company; even in large multinationals, purchasing managers rely on certification by independent organizations. The presence of a green logo, however, is not enough—there are literally hundreds of eco-labels, many of which make misleading, ambiguous, or even outright false claims. In checking these out, purchasers need to ensure they’re truly independent, have an open, transparent review process involving multiple stakeholders, that their assessment standards are explicit, easy to understand and publicly available. Any program should cover a product’s entire lifecycle from the manufacture of each ingredient to disposal. Compliant companies usually display this information on their website.

Of the certification programs available for eco-friendly products, EcoLogo and Green Seal are by far the most meaningful and well respected. “These are the two most common logos and are your assurance that a product has been properly tested and is truly as green as you can be in today’s environment,” says Garland.

Procurement professionals should also check compliance with standards on ethical employment practices. The International Labour Organization (ILO), for example, is a UN agency that promotes social justice and a set of internationally recognized human and labour rights. Other organizations like the Fair Labour Association, Verité, and the Worker Rights Consortium also have standards addressing issues like minimum wage, safe work conditions and child labour. Don’t forget to verify vendors are complying with provincial employment requirements.

Are your staff properly trained?
According to the GIPPER Guide (Governments Incorporating Procurement Policies to Eliminate Refuse) published jointly by various Ontario governmental bodies, cleaning techniques are just as important as products. “Any big green program isn’t just about chemicals and equipment, it’s about training,” says Garland. “If you’re training your people to use a product properly, you’re going to use less product, and you’re going to have less sick time with your employees.”

Safety training is key—lifting and repetitive use of vacuums and floor polishers frequently cause back injuries, and janitors have one of the highest rates of occupational asthma. Since 80 percent of cleaning costs are attributed to labour, the incentive is financial as well as ethical. Green Seal covers commercial cleaning services with their GS-42 standard ensuring—among other things—applicants use the right products and equipment, train their staff to comply with cleaning standards and use proper labeling.

What disposal programs do you have in place?

This question is particularly important when dealing with uncertified suppliers. Purchasers need to know if a cleaning company has recycling programs, how they dispose of toxic substances and if they use biodegradable or re-usable products and packaging. According to Victor Tyrl, purchasing and materials manager with the City of Toronto, procurement people should know their own organization’s sewer discharge systems. “That would be something that you would have to re-iterate to the vendor,” he says. “If they’re going to be cleaning for you, don’t let them just pour things down the drain.”

What steps are you taking to make yourself more sustainable?

This is a good way to get a sense of how serious a company is about sustainability. Organizations that have a set of guiding principles, clear goals and a comprehensive action plan can probably be trusted. Working with a supplier that shows genuine commitment to sustainability also makes it easier for purchasers to collaborate with them to improve purchasing activities and workplace practices. For example, many companies have measures to reduce their vehicle mileage by eliminating unnecessary trips. Having your cleaning vendor align with such strategies helps reinforce your organization’s sustainability goals.

Sustainable procurement is a moving target
As eco-friendly products get steadily cheaper and more effective and cleaning practices become safer and more efficient, purchasers should be reviewing their procurement policies at least once per quarter to ensure they stay ahead of the curve. Sustainability isn’t a “set it and forget it” proposition; it’s about continuous improvement. Ultimately, staying aware of programs and products is the best way to ensure the sustainability agenda continues to move forward.