Today, contractors might mistakenly assume that sustainability is just another fancy name for green cleaning. But green and sustainability are two very different things.

The major difference is that green is limited to the health and environmental impacts of the products made by the manufacturer, while sustainability is applied to the overall impacts of the manufacturer's operations.

Sustainability for a manufacturer includes the following themes:

  • GOVERNANCE: how an organization leads and manages itself in relation to its employees, investors, regulatory authorities, customers and the communities in which it operates.
  • ENVIRONMENT: an organization's environmental footprint across its policies, operations, products and services, including its resource use and emissions.
  • WORKFORCE: issues related to employee working conditions, organization culture and effectiveness.
  • CUSTOMERS AND SUPPLIERS: issues related to an organization's policies and practices on product safety, quality, pricing and marketing as well as its supply chain policies and practices.
  • SOCIAL AND COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: an organization's impacts on its community in the areas of social equity, ethical conduct and human rights.

Building service contractors should keep in mind that sustainability is a journey and not a destination, so there aren't any right or wrong answers. Rather it is about the manufacturer's efforts and for contractors to be informed purchasers.

BSCs, too, want to be as sustainable as possible and one way to do this is by purchasing products from sustainable vendors. The following are 10 questions along with some tactics that contractors can ask to help identify more preferable manufacturers when it comes to sustainability:

1. What framework or certification system are you using?

Just as an office building might use the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) rating system to identify the issues involved with operating a green building, a manufacturer should follow a "framework" such as the Global Reporting Initiative or the Natural Step; or one of the emerging certification programs on sustainable manufacturing from Underwriters Laboratories (ULE 880) or Green Seal (GS-C1) when formulating a sustainability program. Preference should be given to those manufacturers using a recognized framework or certification system as compared to those following their own internal program.

2. Have you published a sustainability or corporate responsibility report?

Two of the most fundamental themes of sustainability are "transparency" and "reporting." Sustainable manufacturers disclose what they're doing as compared to keeping it secret and expecting customers and others to simply "trust them." Preference should be given to manufacturers who are disclosing their efforts as compared to those who are not. And some reporting is better than none at all.

3. Have you set reduction goals?

Once a manufacturer has started tracking and reporting its impacts, the next step is to set reduction goals. Just keep in mind the old saying popularized by Mark Twain, "there are lies, damned lies and statistics." BSCs shouldn't get hung-up on percentages or numbers, but rather consider if the manufacturer is really working to improve. And with this in mind, give preference to a manufacturer that has set more challenging reduction goals compared to others who have more modest goals or none at all.

4. Are you tracking, reporting and reducing your energy use?

Climate change is one of the most serious problems that sustainability professionals are concerned with. Thus decreasing energy use and the carbon footprint is often step one. Prefer manufacturers who are tracking and reporting their energy use/carbon footprint and reducing it as compared to others who may not be tracking or reporting on their efforts. Specific examples of this effort are joining the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star Program or participating in the Carbon Disclosure Project.

5. Are you tracking, reporting and reducing your water use?

While energy is a global issue, water use is regional. Some products require less water during manufacturing compared to others. Whether the manufacturer is in the desert Southwest or the Great Lakes Region, prefer those who are tracking and reporting with reduction goals compared to others who are doing none of these things. Examples to look for are participating in regional conservation efforts like the Great Lakes Compact and using low-water strategies in manufacturing as well as in fixtures, landscaping, etc.

6. Are you tracking, reporting and reducing your waste and emission?

Solid waste is a measure of the efficiency of manufacturing, or the lack thereof. Manufacturers who waste less can offer products at more competitive prices. But this issue is much broader than solid waste and includes emissions to water and air, especially if they might be toxic. Thus prefer manufacturers that are measuring, tracking and reporting on all of their waste and emissions, and perhaps most important have committed to reductions as compared to those who are doing only what is required by law. An example of this might be participating in the EPA's WasteWise program or if the manufacturer has introduced a "take-back" program for their products.

7. Are you tracking, reporting and reducing your transportation impacts?

Transportation can have large environmental impacts. Prefer manufacturers who are tracking and reporting on their transportation impacts and have plans for reductions. An example of this is "right-sizing" their fleet, adopting alternative transportation strategies and participating in EPA's SmartTransport Program.

8. What are your green product trends?

Sustainable manufacturers should make green products. After all, what good is a "sustainable" manufacturer whose products harm health or the environment? While it may be unreasonable to expect 100 percent green products, manufacturers should be heading in this direction. Thus prefer a manufacturer whose sales of green products are clearly trending upwards as a percentage of overall sales, as compared to others who demonstrate a lesser commitment.

9. How are you addressing social equity?

One of the fundamental issues that differentiates sustainability from green or an environmental program is the inclusion of social equity (see "Ashkin on Green"). This goes far beyond just protecting worker health and safety, training and other legal requirements to include philanthropy, volunteerism, community involvement, worker rights, wages, benefits and more. For manufacturers making products in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and other developed countries, this is less of an issue. But of those manufacturing and importing products, subcomponents or ingredients from developing countries like China or Vietnam, prefer manufacturers that have strict policies and are tracking and reporting on worker issues as compared to others who are not.

10. Are you supporting any groups opposed to sustainability?

Some manufacturers make grand public pronouncements that make great advertisements while at the same time actively participating in trade groups and other organizations (including political ones) that specifically work to block sustainability, climate change, social equity and other related issues. There is no right or wrong answer to this and it is not intended to be a political statement; BSCs should ask so they won't be blind-sided if a supplier is targeted as a hypocrite by one of the advocacy groups.

In the end, some of these questions may make manufacturers uncomfortable, but that is not the intent. Rather it is to ensure that the most preferable options are being considered. After all, the most sustainable manufacturer will be the most efficient, which will enable it to offer products at more competitive pricing and reduce the risk that it will have a problem that results in the disruption of the products needed for building service contractors to conduct business. And ultimately, asking hard questions and selecting the most sustainable manufacturer will increase the ability for BSCs to succeed well into the future.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. Ashkin will be speaking at ISSA/INTERCLEAN in Orlando, Fla., on Nov. 9. His seminar, "Green Cleaning Fundamentals" is sponsored by Contracting Profits.