10 Questions to Ask Manufacturers about Sustainability

By Stephen Ashkin

Today, articles on sustainability seem to be everywhere, reflecting the increased awareness of the issues that are facing future generations as a result of past and current practices. And while most industries are slowly adopting greener and ultimately more sustainable practices, the professional cleaning industry seems well on its way.

Led by the demand of facility managers to provide products that meet their cost and performance requirements, the professional cleaning industry has developed new products that truly reduce impacts on health and the environment. The industry includes the manufacturers of chemicals, paper, equipment, tools and other supplies

But the success of Green Cleaning has now lead to other opportunities and challenges as manufacturers mistakenly assume that sustainability is just another fancy name for Green Cleaning. But green and sustainability are two very different things.

For the professional cleaning industry, 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 system and the impact of the manufacturer’s entire operations.

To make it easier for facility managers to make informed decisions, the following are 10 questions along with some tactics that can be asked to help identify more preferable manufacturers when it comes to sustainability:

  1. What framework or certification system are you using?

    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 (CS-01) 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". Manufacturers should 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 impact, 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." So don’t get hung-up on percentages or numbers, but rather think 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 energy use and decreasing the carbon footprint is often step one. Prefer manufacturers who are tracking and reporting their energy use / carbon footprint and reducing it as compare to others who may not be tracking or reporting on their efforts. A specific example of this effort are joining EPA’s Energy Star or Climate Wise Programs, 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. Furthermore, 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 it 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 EPA’s Waste Wise program or the manufacturer has introduced a "take-back" program for their products.

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

    Transportation can have large environmental impact. Prefer manufacturers that are tracking and reporting their transportation impact and have plans for reductions. An example of this is "right-sizing" their fleet, adopting alternative transportation strategies and participating in EPA’s Smart Transport Program. Also, inquire about their work with their distribution channel since most facility managers do not receive their cleaning supplies directly from the manufacturer and collectively it does add up from an environmental perspective, while greater efficiencies will drive costs down.

  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% green products, they 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. This goes far beyond just protecting worker health and safety, training and other legal requirements; but can include philanthropy, volunteerism, community involvement, worker rights, wages, benefits and more. For manufacturers making products in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and other developed countries, this is less of an issue. But for 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 manufactures 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; just ask so you won’t be blind-sided if your 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 the intent is to insure that facility managers are considering the most preferable options. After all, the most sustainable manufacturer will be the most efficient which will enable them to offer products at more competitive pricing and reduces the risk that they will have a problem that results in the disruption of the products needed for you to conduct business. And ultimately, asking hard questions and selecting the most sustainable manufacturer will increase the ability for you to succeed well into the future.

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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