The concept of sustainability is originally derived from the United Nations, which, in 1987, published the Report of the Brundtland Commission, "Our Common Future." The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Today, sustainability is often thought of in terms of the triple bottom line which is a balance of an organization's impacts on the environment, economics and social responsibility (or people, planet, profit). The environment (planet) refers to practices affecting the environment including natural resources, energy, water, waste and emissions to air. Economics (profit) recognizes the need for companies to be profitable to stay in business. And social responsibility (people) pertains to fair and beneficial practices toward labor, the community and region in which an organization conducts its business.

While "green" has an intense but limited focus on reducing negative impacts on health and the environment typically associated with the use of specific products and processes, "sustainability" goes far beyond this because it must simultaneously address all components of the triple bottom line (where addressing just one or even two of the three are not enough).

For a contractor to begin to move from green to sustainable, they need to consider how they operate their own offices and warehouses to reduce environmental impacts. Some examples include:

  • Energy consumption for heating, cooling, lighting and powering various pieces of office equipment.
  • Water consumption, both in the cleaning process, as well as in the restrooms of their own building and for landscaping.
  • Waste, including both solid waste and recycling, along with purchasing policies that require a preference for buying green products and products that reduce waste altogether.
  • Vehicles used by cleaning and sales staffs to reduce fuel consumption.

Contractors must address economic issues because to be sustainable a company must be able to make a profit to stay in business.

And in many respects what truly differentiates green or environmental programs from sustainability is that sustainability uniquely includes social responsibility. For contractors to truly begin implementing a sustainability program, they should consider how they address:

  • Wages and benefits;
  • Training and opportunities for advancement;
  • Non-discriminatory practices;
  • Philanthropic efforts of both the company and employees;
  • Volunteerism and other community involvement.

When addressing sustainability it is essential for us to continue to meet "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" with practices that are beginning to be demanded by customers and which also helps contractors to save money and be more profitable.

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