Industry insiders point to the early 2000s as the time when sustainability first started to appear on a facilities manager’s list of preferred supplier attributes. Back then, the two main requirements for delivering sustainable cleaning were to use environmentally friendly cleaning products and support a customer’s own recycling initiatives. Then along came Corporate Social Responsibility and to environment was added ethical purchasing - all designed to present the cleaning company as a desirable business partner.
Realistically, though, how many cleaning contracts were awarded on the basis of such behaviour? And who can criticise FMs? What’s the point of employing a ‘sustainable’ cleaning contractor unless they add real value to the management of a building?
A change in outlook
As the 2010s gathered pace, cleaning customers gradually took more interest in the sustainability credentials of cleaning companies and a sustainable contractor will now work to understand their customer’s environmental strategy and align their own activity towards it. In particular, cleaning contractors have been focusing on two impor tant areas to reduce the environmental impact of cleaning: reducing water and chemical use; and maximising paperless processes through the use of contract management software.
Reduction in chemical use
Over the last ten years, three developments have increasingly made the reduction in cleaning chemicals a more easily achievable aim: microfibre technology, steam cleaning and enzyme-based cleaning.
Microfibre: A combination of electrostatic attraction and capillary action means microfibre cloths and mops, designed to be used dry or dampened with water only, can reach into invisible crevices in surfaces that are inaccessible to conventional cleaning materials. Concerns about microfibre posing a threat to marine life by releasing microscopic plastic fibres when microfibre products are washed have now been addressed by companies such as Wikan with the introduction of ultramicrofibre that is proven to produce little or no plastic emissions.
Steam: Steam cleaning uses superheated dry steam delivered under pressure, at greater than 140˚C, to loosen dirt, grease and sticky oils from surfaces, killing micro-organisms by thermal disinfection. Laboratory tests confirm that steam cleaning completely removes common micro-organisms and completely disinfects the cleaned surface. Steam cleaning is also well suited to deep restorative cleaning of heavily contaminated surfaces. Its only drawback is that it is an intensive, time-consuming activity, frequently using large equipment. It is therefore more suited to periodic deepcleaning treatments rather than daily use.
Enzymes: Notwithstanding the emergence of low impact chemical products, demand is now growing for purely biological cleaning products. These use good bacteria and the enzymes they produce as cleaning agents, breaking down waste and creating their own biofilm to continue to protect and clean for up to eighty hours, thanks to residual cleaning as the enzymes remain on the surface. The challenge is being addressed by various companies in this field to develop biological products that can compete like for like on costs with major chemical brands available today.
Use of technology for paperless processes
In cleaning, replacing paper-based processing with software-driven equivalents has given contractors a real competitive edge, not just by saving on paper purchase, but by reducing the overall amount of time spent on administration and its associated resource requirement - filing cabinets, office space and the headcount of back-office administration teams themselves.
The electronic management – with no requirement to print - of key procedures such as new contract setup, staff onboarding, timesheets, staff communication, ordering of materials or consumables, quality auditing, helpdesk, client billing, and supplier payment is now within reach for cleaning contractors who are willing to invest in any one of a number of software systems designed specifically for the industry.
As well as significantly reducing the workload of their office admin team and freeing up field managers to spend more time focusing on staff and clients, contractors can reduce their carbon footprint due to less paper usage and a reduction in miles travelled to attend meetings. Such systems also simplify business continuity in the e vent that a disaster strikes at an office.
The 2020s are set to see the growth of sustainably in the much wider sense of doing business for the benefit of people and society at large, as well as the environment. The global emergence of B-Corps (Benefit Corporations) reflects a growing feeling that business should have a purpose beyond profit, leading a limited number of cleaning companies to seek B-Corp accreditation. By demonstrating a new enlightened approach to doing business, their objective is to gain a competitive advantage over contractors who are slower to react.
About the Author
Stephen MacDonald is the owner at Stephen MacDonald Associates in the UK that helps companies within the cleaning industry plan and deliver growth. He was a registered board director of a £20m turnover UK cleaning contractor specialising in business development, marketing, public relations and quality management.