As more manufacturers have entered the green market, they have found that just supplying green products or services is no longer enough to differentiate themselves from the competition. As a result, more companies have started using terms such as “sustainability” and “sustainable products” to market their products and programs as superior compared to standard green offerings. The challenge is that in most cases the term sustainable is being used interchangeably with green, which is incorrect.

“Green” focuses on environmental impacts along with how products and services impact people’s health. It is important to emphasize that impacts on people is limited only to the impacts on health. Whereas sustainability encompasses much, much more.

Beyond addressing the environment and impacts on people’s health, sustainability goes on to look much more deeply at other ways that people’s lives are affected. It considers workers’ wages, diversity, community engagement, philanthropy and other social equity issues. Sustainability also encompasses broad environmental issues such as those related to product manufacturing, sources of raw materials, or impacts throughout its supply chain.

Green is a terrific first step that is changing and improving the cleaning industry. But as a first step it is limited. For example, a green product could be made from child or slave labor in some developing country but still be considered environmentally preferable because compared to traditional products it meets green’s definition of reducing “health and environmental impacts compared to similar products.”

Furthermore, a legitimate green product typically doesn’t even consider the complete manufacturing impacts of the product over its entire life-cycle. A green product is acceptable as long as it doesn’t create greater negative impacts compared to the traditional product, and while this is good it does not mean that it has NO negative impacts. Addressing a broader array of environmental, social and financial impacts is what the next step of sustainability will force us to consider.

So when a manufacturer markets a product as being sustainable it is important to determine if they are simply using this term interchangeably with green, or can they document that their product, the manufacturing process, as well as the company that made the product, along with their entire supply chain, have addressed the financial, environmental and social equity issues required by the likes of the Global Reporting Initiative.

If all claims can’t be documented, then building service contractors should just stick with the term “green” when touting the products used in their cleaning programs until these broader claims can be justified. If you are using questionable sustainability claims to support that your program is sustainable, just beware because green and sustainable simply are not the same thing — and your customers are learning the difference, too.

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

Stephen and David Holly will be presenting the seminar, “Practice What Your Preach: Steps to Becoming Sustainable,” at ISSA/INTERCLEAN in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Oct. 18. The session is being sponsored by Housekeeping Solutions, a sister publication of Contracting Profits