Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important issue for building service contractors, whether it is being driven by customer requirements, internal cost reductions or marketing/sales opportunities to differentiate from the competition.

Regardless of the motivation, the most essential key to success is recognizing that sustainability is not about reporting. Fundamentally from a business perspective, sustainability has to be about reducing environmental impacts; improving the impacts on employees, customers and communities; and improving the financial performance of the company.

If the company is small, perhaps sustainability can be the responsibility of a single individual. But for most organizations, in order for a sustainability program to succeed it has to become an overall commitment, requiring people at all levels and locations throughout the organization to be involved.

Even though the sustainability program will most likely be a group effort, it’s still important to clearly identify a leader to be in charge. This person should be passionate about sustainability. Contractors can succeed with a good accountant who has little passion or excitement for accounting, as long as they know what they are doing and meet all the legal, tax and other requirements. But sustainability is different as there are evolving requirements and it will take the power of persuasion and passion to light the fire and begin the organizational change.

Of course, the leader will also need other important skills such as being organized and knowing how to manage a meeting, make assignments, and hold people accountable — and they’ll also need to have the time to do the job.

Beyond selecting a good leader, it is important to think about the overall structure of the company. This is because the sustainability program should be designed to drive corporate cultural change, so consider selecting individuals throughout the company to participate as a member of the sustainability team.

The team should include representatives from sales, customer service, HR and operations. And for contractors with operations in many geographical locations, try to have at least one official representative, as well as an alternate, from each location. Being selected to the Sustainability Team should be an honor, not just another job for an already overburdened employee.

Don’t forget that sustainability isn’t just about the service that is offered. It is also about how the business itself is operated. So make sure to consider including office staff such as accounting, purchasing, marketing and other administrative support personnel. They, too, have an impact on what the business uses internally and can affect both the environmental impacts from what they use and purchase, and the corresponding environmental and cost impacts.

Again, it is helpful if all team members actually have an interest in sustainability or general “green” issues. This is especially important in the early stages of the program because skeptics, naysayers, doubters, etc., will make it harder for everyone else and for the program to succeed. And be especially careful about those who like playing devil’s advocate. This strategy is used by people who often aren’t trying to find answers to difficult questions, but rather are making work for others. Admittedly, with sustainability, there are numerous questions that remain unanswered, so if the effort focuses on answering all the questions before action can take place, the program is destined to fail.

Stephen Ashkin is the president of The Ashkin Group, executive director of the Green Cleaning Network, cofounder of Green Cleaning University and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC — all of which play important roles in his efforts to move the global cleaning industry from green to sustainable. He can be reached at