As green matures from the "early adopter" phase into the mainstream, it is evolving. Green primarily focuses on the environmental and direct health impacts of a product or service. Sustainability, however, now takes a new and more holistic approach that considers an entire organization's impact on the environment.

Sustainability goes beyond green in one important way. While green encompasses environmental and health impacts, sustainability includes these and goes far beyond to include wages, benefits, training and other impacts on people. And considering the significance of labor cost, sustainability may have equally significant implications for our industry.

Today there are emerging efforts among organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to include a voluntary credit for LEED facilities addressing the social equity needs of workers including both direct employees, as well as the employees of their contractors.

The social equity issues most commonly being discussed as it applies to the cleaning industry include:

  • WAGES: Workers are paid according to the federal prevailing wage, local living wage or the terms of any collective bargaining agreement that covers a majority of maintenance and operations workers in force in that location. Paying appropriate wages so workers can feed their families and pay their rent is fundamental to social equity.
  • BENEFITS: Workers are provided options for a medical plan and other benefits. As with wages, benefits, especially related to basic healthcare, is fundamental to social equity.
  • TRAINING: Workers are provided training on appropriate processes and product usage, as well as on health, safety and environmental requirements. Training is important in terms of protecting worker health and safety, as well as the opportunity for advancement and "meaningful" work.
  • WORKER/MANAGEMENT TEAM: A worker/management group is established that addresses process improvements and green innovations, as well as a place to arbitrate worker concerns. Social equity recognizes that workers should have a "voice" in the decisions that are being made, especially relative to those that affect them directly.
  • DISPLACED WORKER POLICY: When taking over or acquiring an account or location, contractors or subcontractors shall offer employment to and retain the incumbent employees including those who are out on approved leave on the date of the takeover.
  • SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE CONTRACTOR POLICY: The policy is designed to ensure that contractors comply with all applicable local, state and national laws and regulations in the performance of the contract, including but not limited to those governing health and safety, labor and employment, wage and hours, overtime and all discrimination laws. This requirement levels the "playing field" to ensure that unscrupulous companies don't gain an advantage over those contractors trying to "play by the rules."

What is important for contractors to consider is that this could turn out to be a major advancement rather than a threat to their profit margins. Standardizing the minimum requirements of pay, benefits, training, etc., will eliminate the advantage that some unscrupulous contractors currently enjoy and will allow responsible contractors to shine. And if facilities want this LEED point or want to publicly market themselves as "responsible" organizations, they will pay more for their services.

And everyone wins. Contractors profit more as their customers pay more. Workers benefit because their basic needs are being met. Facilities and their occupants benefit because a better trained and more stable workforce will result in healthier buildings.

While it is premature to determine how the issue of social equity will play out, it is an inevitable development as green evolves into sustainability and it could be very valuable for contractors.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network. He can be reached at