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Sustainability and going green are just smart business, and building service contractors should be making efforts to not only implement sustainable practices but to consider hiring sustainability experts.

Large corporations, from Dow Chemical to General Motors to Google, have recently made the commitment to add environmental and sustainability leadership positions to their companies.

With sustainability being of major importance to some customers and a majority of facility managers (85 percent, according to a Contracting Profits survey), BSCs, too, are starting to examine how such a position could benefit their business.

The title itself — chief sustainability officer, director of sustainability, vice president of sustainability, etc. — matters less than the intentions that accompany its creation.

The position has to fit into a greater company culture of sustainability, says Steve Ashkin, president of Bloomington, Ind.-based The Ashkin Group and chairman of Sustainability Dashboard.

“It’s been said that sustainability is not a destination, it’s a journey. But it’s much more than that. It really is a culture,” says Ashkin.

It’s a culture that says a building service contractor cares about the environment, their customers and its own people, says Ashkin.

BSCs must define their sustainability goals, implement appropriate changes, and measure their success. For some firms, this has meant putting a person in place to lead the effort and go the distance. Sustainability is not just about going green — it's about implementing a top-down strategy to influence attitudes and behaviors, which can be the hardest part of making a difference.

“Not having sustainability leadership in place can be a liability. It’s not much different than not having a director of safety and risk,” says Jason Lee, director of sustainability and process optimization for New York-based Harvard Maintenance.

Leadership matters

Whether it’s an internal position or a newly created one, the important thing is to get the right person in place.

“If I was hiring a chief financial officer, I wouldn’t hire someone just because they are interested in math. Neither would I hire a sustainability director just because they are interested in green stuff,” Ashkin says. “People need to know what they are doing.”

Ashkin recommends using LinkedIn to connect with sustainability professionals that have the types of training required or hire a recent sustainability graduate with a master’s degree.

“The point is, [BSCs] need to hire someone with either experience or good academic training. Good intentions don’t make for a good hire,” he says.

At a minimum, the individual put into this role needs LEED Green Associate (GA) certification, and preferably has experience with LEED-Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance certification. But passion and potential need to be there as well, says John Ravaris, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Harvard Maintenance.

“You need to find a person who has the desire to learn about sustainability and is in a position to keep learning,” he says. “The right person for the job has to understand how we execute our work and how sustainability correlates to the processes and procedures we bring to a facility.”

When BSCs go about creating the position, they should keep in mind the benefits and end goals of any sustainability initiatives and consider it an investment — but one that still fits the budget, particularly for smaller companies that may not have extra room in their budgets to create smaller positions. It may not make sense for all companies to create a new position; in some cases, two jobs can be rolled into one or sustainability responsibilities can be added to a current position description. Each company needs to audit current positions and determine the possibilities that will work best for it.

While appointing a person to sustainability leadership positions may appear to some as an overhead position they can ill-afford, Lee recommends they broaden their thinking on the subject.

“We don’t believe it should be viewed as a staff position that is 100-percent overhead,” he says. “When done properly, it helps identify and reduce waste within our operations and drives business.”

Cash-strapped or smaller BSCs need not be left out of the sustainability picture, Ravaris agrees, pointing out there are many ways to attain greater sustainability within an organization without this position.

“Identify someone on staff with an interest in sustainability. It could be the director of human resources, a sales person, a trainer,” he says. “Once you’ve done that there are plenty of resources out there where these people can get the training they need.”

Companies that do introduce sustainability positions need to make sure they’ve got a true expert on their hands — make sure he or she can deliver the goods. Dave Thompson, president of the Green Clean Institute, Rolla, Mo., says he spoke with a sustainability officer recently who worked in a LEED-certified building. That individual didn’t even know how to put together a green cleaning program.

“They had every green cleaning item imaginable in the building but they still didn’t have a green cleaning policy for their people. They had Green Seal-certified products, they had recycled trash can liners, but they didn’t have any education for their employees, none of them were certified and they hadn’t changed any of their procedures,” Thompson says.

The person heading up the sustainability effort also should not be the only person within an organization who embraces it. The more people in the firm educated on sustainability, the more thorough a BSC’s transformation can be.

Harvard Maintenance recently launched an effort to uncover others within the company who were interested in learning more about sustainability.

The firm currently has a member of its bid proposal team, a trainer and several operations professionals working toward LEED GA accreditation.

The level of sophistication and expertise that some customers have reached regarding sustainability requires BSCs to match and even exceed that knowledge. That’s where a leadership position can be so integral.

“In the old days, there was a limited understanding of green and sustainability that you could get by with to hold your own in the conversation but the dialogue has deepened and you can’t fake your way through it,” Ravaris says.

Creating a culture

Once sustainability leadership is in place, the first step should be to take an inside-out approach to sustainability — ultimately, the objective is to make the organization more sustainable, says Ashkin

“You need to transform the organization,” he says. “By doing so, it becomes more attractive to others. In going through that process, the organization becomes more efficient, which means it should become more price competitive. The people in the organization become more engaged, more empowered and more educated, so they perform better.”

The most immediate measures BSCs typically pursue are greening their products, then greening their facilities, he says.

“Learning how to reduce consumption in their operations and their own buildings will be good environmentally and will save money. They should put policies and practices in place to address those things,” Ashkin adds. “But those are the easy steps.”

It will be harder to become more sustainable from a social equity perspective.

Sustainability leaders’ primary goal should be to look at where the BSC can have the greatest sustainability impact within their organization — typically pertaining to employees.

“A contractor’s largest asset is their people; their greatest impacts aren’t going to come from their building, which may be a small office they rent in a multi-tenant facility,” Ashkin explains.

The path to greater sustainability, he says, starts with looking at the operation from a social equity perspective and asking questions like: How do we engage our people? How do we educate them? How do we empower them? How do we train them? How do we pay them? What benefits do we give them?

To that end, Harvard Maintenance employs what it calls an “Inverted Pyramid.” This top-down approach puts frontline employees first. As explained on its website, “Our managers are there to enable employees to do their jobs, providing them with the necessary support to empower them and help them excel in all their duties.”

As director of sustainability, Lee works with human resources to set hiring practices, screening processes, employee orientation and continuous training.

“If we have happy employees, we have service excellence and that spills over to the business side to satisfied customers,” Lee says. “We have a high safety rating because we have low employee turnover and we arm them with products, tools and equipment that make them productive, efficient, effective and safe.”

Employee retention is critical, he explains, as turnover is one of the greatest organizational costs for a BSC.

“People are the No. 1 thing to consider when you’re talking about sustainability,” says Lee.

Leadership in action

At Harvard Maintenance, the sustainability director fills many roles.

The first task at hand was for Lee to take the company through recertification. Harvard is Green Building (GB) certified with Honors by ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) and also GS-42 certified by Green Seal.

“We wanted to be sure the certifications we’ve been awarded are being executed in the field and that we move through the recertification process,” Ravaris explains.

The second primary function involves auditing operations to ensure buildings are being cleaned to these green standards.

“We want to ensure we aren’t just saying we’re delivering green cleaning and sustainability programs,” Ravaris says.

Lee explains further: “We audit our compliance in conjunction with our GS-42 and CIMS certifications at all of our sites, regardless of our client requirements. When we say we are sustainable at their site, we are capable of providing added quantified measures for validation and continuous improvement ideology.”

The third role is to guide the sales process as the company attempts to attract new business. According to Lee, many potential clients still come with the mistaken perception that sustainability is just greening cleaning chemicals and equipment.

“But those are just the basics. We illustrate how we can partner with them beyond those things,” says Lee.

Top of mind for the sustainability director must be cleaning for health, Lee explains.

“Indoor air quality, along with health and wellness, is key,” he says. “We must talk to our customers about how important these standardized practices are for clients and show them that improving indoor air quality may help reduce employee absenteeism and help control the spread of pathogens that can be harmful to human health.”

The sustainability director also must consider waste diversion, which Lee says includes looking at the supply chain, the processes used and the concept of reduce-reuse.

“In sustainability, we reduce and reuse, there is no recycle,” he says. “We look at what we can do to increase our waste diversion rates that have a direct impact at our client sites.”

Source reduction, or activities designed to reduce the volume of material at the front end of a purchasing decision, exemplify a lean supply chain management strategy.

Harvard has also developed a select list of manufacturers they work with based on their actual environmental calculations that are used for a procurement analysis of product impacts and alignment with customer objective.

“We really become a resource for our customers,” says Ravaris. “When you have a sustainability director on staff you add value. It takes you to a whole new level.”

Most importantly, the director’s role is to keep Harvard Maintenance on the forefront of the evolving sustainability landscape.

“Sustainability isn’t stagnant. It’s always changing,” Ravaris says. “Four years ago, no one was talking about how a BSC may collaborate with facility managers to help save energy and water; today, everyone is talking about it. They weren’t thinking about their carbon footprint, source reduction or added efficiencies within their supply chain management before. All of these things are emerging, and our sustainability director is tasked with being at the forefront of these changing regulations.”

The word sustainable may have garnered much of the hype that the word green used to have, but BSCs are encouraged to look beyond that and consider sustainability a commitment to and investment in the future of their companies.

“Sustainability has become the new buzzword,” says Ashkin. “People were caught sleeping at the wheel when the green cleaning movement came. Now a lot of these same people don’t want to miss the boat this time. They want to do it first and sometimes they’re doing it wrong.”

Putting the right leadership in place to guide a BSC’s sustainability journey can be a strategic step in the right direction.


Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.