The words sustainable and green are often used interchangeably. But being "green" and being "sustainable" is not the same thing.

The federal government defines green as "products and services that reduce health and environmental impacts compared to similar products and services used for the same purpose," says Steve Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group and chairman of the Sustainability Dashboard.

Sustainability, on the other hand, can be represented with a three-legged stool having a leg for environmental, social and financial responsibility, according to Jim Newman, owner of Newman Consulting Group.  
"With green, our consideration about people and staff is limited to direct exposures from products or services," says Ashkin. "Sustainability is a much broader term that talks about the implications of those products and services used over a much longer period of time, and considers social and financial impacts as well."

So what does this mean to custodial operations? It means they must define their green/sustainability goals, implement these changes and then measure their success.

Setting Goals

The first step in becoming greener or more sustainable entails defining the facility's goals, says Mike Opitz, principal in the Green Building Practice of The Cadmus Group. The big question is: Does the custodial operation seek to green its cleaning or take a sustainable approach to the entire facility?

"Are their goals to improve financial performance, walk the green talk at a facility level, or have a larger impact as a global citizen and become known as an organization that goes the extra mile to show its commitment to sustainability?" Opitz asks. Answers to these questions will determine the facility goals.

Whether green or sustainable, goals should be considered on a project by project basis; meaning what works or is right for one custodial operation may not be a good fit for all, says Jennifer Easton, communications associate at the U.S. Green Building Council.

When choosing to become more sustainable, Opitz recommends custodial operations consider what it might take for the facility to become a high-performance building and adjust their perspective from there. High-performance buildings minimize the waste of resources in every area from products and services to energy and water to people and their time. A high-performance building utilizes many means to become more sustainable; one of which might be green cleaning.

As goals are outlined, keep in mind that what an operation does to become greener will also make a facility more sustainable. "The two go hand in hand," says Easton.

There is no right way to go green and move toward sustainability either, adds Ashkin. Start slowly and build from there. "Sustainability is a journey, not a destination," he says.

Furthermore, gaining upper management support is critical to the success of any green or sustainability program, adds Opitz, who recommends custodial operations begin the conversation from the top down and articulate the case for going green or becoming more sustainable.

"Say,'We realize it'll take work to make changes, but if you do this: Here's how much money we can save in the first year. Here's how much time we can expect to save. Here's what kind of change we might see in occupant complaints,' " he says. "You need to look at the pros and cons and the pluses and minuses of making the changes and build a good case."

Buying Green/Buying Sustainable    

In many custodial operations purchasing greener products is the starting point in the sustainable journey.

Easton recommends developing an environmentally preferred purchasing program that details the types of green products and equipment the operation will use. The program should consider what's currently being used and how that will change as the operation moves in a more environmentally friendly direction.

"A purchasing program should cover green cleaning products and equipment, from floor cleaners to mops and dusters to hand dryers, paper products and soaps," she says.

USGBC recommends looking for Green Seal, Environmental Choice or EPA certifications when purchasing things like paper products, cleaning chemicals, soaps and hand sanitizers, and seeking out third-party certifications for equipment, such as Carpet & Rug Institute certification for vacuums, floor scrubbers and carpet extractors.

Successful purchasing programs do not overlook the importance of educating team members and purchasing managers about green products. They should be taught to consider how much the product costs, how much is used per application, whether it will last longer than a traditional product, and whether it is better for building occupants and custodial workers. This way if a manufacturer stops producing a specific green product, replacements can be quickly identified.

It's also important to set purchasing goals. It may not be feasible to switch out chemicals and equipment to greener options within a single year, but setting goals can help an operation meet the objective.

"Set a goal that next year you'll use 20 percent green chemicals, the year after that 50 percent and the year after that 100 percent," says Opitz. "Your environmentally preferable equipment may be at zero now, but set a goal that in the next purchasing cycle, 20 to 30 percent of replacement equipment will have a green certification label."

This strategy keeps custodial operations from wasting resources they currently have, which would not be very sustainable, adds Easton. A phased in plan enables operations to use up chemical inventory, which Easton points out often can be diluted more than recommended and still clean adequately.

Should an operation decide to immediately switch out harsher cleaning products and outdated equipment, Easton recommends finding a disposal or recycling facility that accepts hazardous chemicals and old equipment to ensure they are disposed of in a safe manner that protects the environment and human health.

A purchasing program can take on a sustainable bent by asking additional questions of manufacturers and suppliers, adds Ashkin. Operations managers can ask suppliers to tell them about their environmental impact, how they make their products, product changes that made them more environmentally friendly, their hiring policies and wages, etc.

"When you're green, you don't dig in as deeply," Ashkin explains. "But if you're sustainable and you're buying a paper product, you're also asking: Where did this paper come from? What is it made of? Is it made out of illegally harvested wood? What forestry practices were employed?" A company that plants a new tree for every one it cuts down is using sustainable forestry practices, for instance.

In essence, sustainability requires the custodial operation to look at a product's entire life cycle, from cradle to grave. This means considering how raw materials were extracted, how the product was made, how the products were shipped, what types of packaging was used and the recycling or disposal of the product.

"By asking these questions, you're influencing suppliers," says Opitz. "You're not just asking about the green version of the product you want to buy, you're asking them about their own behavior. You're asking if they have a sustainability policy and whether there is any meat to it. You're asking if they have goals and if they measure their progress and if they hold themselves accountable."

Document The Process

As companies move down the sustainable path, documenting their results becomes very important.

"It's a broader view that covers more than just delivering services and using green products," Ashkin says. "With that comes an expectancy for transparency and reporting. There needs to be a sustainability program matrix that measures the improvement plans."

He adds that the following areas must be documented: worker pay, employee education and training, diversity programs, manufacturers or distributors used and their sustainability programs, and internal sustainability programs.

The measurements should take a before and after view of six primary categories: energy, transportation, waste/recycling, water, office supplies and cleaning products. For example: If the custodial operation implements a recycling program, it will want to track how much waste the facility generated before the program was put in place, how much waste it generates now, and how much is now being recycled. Or if the goal was to use green chemicals to improve indoor air quality and reduce absenteeism, then compare absenteeism rates before and after the change.

"As you strive to make improvements you need to document your progress," Ashkin says.

A custodial effectiveness assessment also helps identify the success of green and sustainability programs, agree Easton and Newman. Survey occupants before and after making changes and compare the results.

Says Easton, "Once you have a green program in place it should be really apparent and surveys can be a good benchmark to gauge where you were at, where you are now and how far you've come."  

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.