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Like-minded partners15th of October 2010
Sustainability is not a subject only to be addressed by manufacturers – contract cleaners and distributors have their key role to play in driving the industry as a whole towards a more sustainable future. In the first part of this special report, ECJ editor Michelle Marshall looks at the example of Principle Cleaning Services, a privately owned cleaning contractor in the UK. Then, we focus on the company supplying Principle – Future Supplies & Support Services. Two like-minded companies working together successfully to run more sustainable and more profitable businesses.
The contract cleaning company
Principle Cleaning Services is a privately owned company founded in 1989 by the current chief executive Douglas Cooke. Its core business is in providing daily cleaning services to prestige clients in London and the surrounding area. Employing over 1,700 staff, this is a company which has always been run with issues such as the environment and corporate social responsibility (CSR) very much at the core of its values.
Its managing director Peter Smith explained: “Sustainability is a very big subject and we worked hard to decide exactly what it is to our company. Firstly it is about our people, who are our most important asset. We must ensure we have a sustainable workforce through training, development and communication.
“Then we have to examine the way we clean, so we have a proactive approach to trialling new, more environmentally conscious technology. We have found our staff love trying new products and the clients appreciate that we bring innovation to their contracts. We try to be proactive in bringing new ideas to clients which are both more environmentally aware and which save them money. In our experience clients do not want to pay more for sustainability, therefore we present them with the business case for buying into new ideas.”
Sustainability is also a primary consideration when it comes to cleaning products. Smith continued: “We examine closely how we use chemicals, concentrates and dispensing systems for example. And we very much advocate the use of microfibre – as long as it’s managed properly. The only potential downside is that a washing machine is needed to launder microfibre cloths and they must be washed at high temperatures – with detergent. That raises some issues on the sustainability front.”
Through the use of new cleaning technologies Principle has seen its chemical usage reduce considerably in recent years and the business has embraced products which allow them to clean floors with water only, for example. It has been impressed with all the developments that allow cleaning with water and see the use of this technique as being an area of much potential growth in certain applications, “although a major culture change is required in order for it to really take off”, added Smith.
Labour greatest asset
For any cleaning business the largest cost, and the greatest asset, is labour. With that always in mind, personnel have been the primary focus of sustainability initiatives at Principle. “Daytime cleaning has been key to our sustainability strategy but there is still largely a culture against it on the part of the clients,” explained Smith. “All the right technology is there but so many clients still do not want cleaners around their building during the day.“
He continued: “For staff daytime cleaning is a much better option. Cleaners feel more visible and part of the team, they have more sociable hours. The staff who do work on daytime contracts love doing that and the way they are treated by the client is totally different. They are more involved, they get more benefits, the clients like them being visible.”
The Principle management strives hard to ensure all its staff feel appreciated and part of the overall team. They enjoy strong management, support and communication – supervisors are frequently travelling around sites to see people who may otherwise feel isolated. There is a strong training policy and staff are trained to nationally recognised standards. “For those of our people who have no qualifications whatsoever this is invaluable,” Smith said. “And if we need to develop supervisors and English is not their first language, we offer them lessons in their own time. Training need not be expensive but contractors really do need to organise themselves properly.”
Chief executive Douglas Cooke explained the business benefits of Principle’s sustainability ethics with regard to its staff. “Or staff turnover is considerably lower than in the rest of the contract cleaning sector, and high staff turnover is costly. A stable workforce also reflects extremely well with clients. Part-time working is one of the main reasons staff turnover is commonly so high – another reason why we try to offer full-time daytime jobs as much as possible.” Cooke is also personally involved with the campaign for a living wage for cleaners in the London area, which he feels to be crucial to creating a sustainable cleaning industry.
Six years ago Principle also made the decision to purchase hybrid cars for those supervisors and managers who need to travel between contracts. The benefits of this have been numerous – reduced tax, no London congestion charge, low fuel consumption. “We have saved thousands on each car every year,” Cooke pointed out. The company also initiated the use of an electric van at the site of one of its university campus clients – “the large site layout suited the vehicle”.
Across the company less car use is being encouraged generally, with a drive to travel by public transport where possible.
Another most interesting area which Principle has been involved in throughout its history is charity work. Cooke has driven this personally and he is still passionate about the charities the company has become associated with. As well as taking part in fundraising events for national charities, Cooke was keen to have a closer involvement with something closer to home. “A few years ago we formalised our relationship with the London Centre for Children with Cerebral Palsy. I deliberately chose a local charity because we can have a really close relationship with it. So every year we give it £10,000 worth of support through donating some of our profits and fundraising events. Our staff also volunteer their time to clean their building.”
When it comes to being involved with charitable work, as far as Cooke is concerned “it’s not rocket science – any business can play a part. The only real cost is time and commitment".
Principle may have long been involved with the sustainability concept, but it is certainly not standing still and is keen to embrace the possibilities new developments bring. Cooke explained: “We are now conscious of carbon-free cleaning and have ambitions in terms of carbon-neutral operations. We only use carbon-neutral distribution already and are undergoing a project to measure our carbon footprint.”
So for Principle Cleaning Services a drive for sustainability has resulted in many direct benefits for the business, having originally been borne out of a desire to ‘do the right thing’. As Peter Smith concluded: ““It’s important in business that we take a responsible attitude.”
Like Principle Cleaning Services, the cleaning products distributor it has chosen as its partner has had sustainability at its core from the very beginning, 15 years ago. This has been driven by Futures Cleaning Supplies managing director Mandie Kemp, who has a passion for the issues surrounding sustainability. And that covers responsible procurement, waste minimisation, energy efficiency, recycling, travel, vehicle management, CSR, charity work, employee care, innovation and training. Kemp has compiled extremely detailed statements which set out the company’s aims.
“I have always believed we are very wasteful as a society, and also quick to dismiss people we see as not quite fitting in, or with those with problems etc,” Kemp explained. “But when we started we did it with very simple measures - using less paper and saving power by turning off computers, for example. Then eight years ago we decided to formalise our initiatives by gaining ISO certification. After that we began to investigate the more environmentally conscious cleaning products on the market and to encourage our customers to choose them over the traditional options.”
Over five years ago the company started work on implementing a traffic light system as part of its website product guide. This offers customers information and an environmental rating about each of the cleaning products the company sells – an enormous project to complete. “I was determined to complete that guide because we try to encourage our customers to make a more sustainable choice as far as the whole supply chain is concerned.”
The carbon-neutral issue is one which Futures is particularly proactive with and it has achieved CarbonNeutral status. It works with the CarbonNeutral Company – which owns the registered trademark - to undertake the four-step process of measuring, targeting, reducing and communicating carbon use. To balance out its unavoidable emissions, Futures purchases ‘carbon credits’ which go towards supporting sustainability projects worldwide.
Kemp is an enthusiastic advocate of certification and recognition of sustainability credentials. As well as CarbonNeutral status Futures has been certified to BS EN ISO 14001 and has won numerous awards for its environmental initiatives. – including a coveted Green Apple.
She acknowledges, however, the enormous challenge involved in bringing sustainability issues to the heart of a company and engaging both staff and customers. “It was difficult to first to ensure staff understood our message - making sure they bought into the same ideas,” Kemp explained.
“My advice would be to encourage everyone to become involved in projects – we communicate and involve our people in everything we do. We have found that if you give people knowledge and information and offer them a choice, they will do the right things. And it’s essential to then follow up continuously by showing them the differences they are making – that keeps them motivated.”
Difficult to engage
And cleaning companies are often difficult to engage in sustainable practices, she said. “They believe it’s the right thing to do but there are so many other pressures on them – time and cost – plus often a reluctance to change. They are also sceptical about the ‘greenwash’ in the industry and the confusing claims being made by manufacturers. And it has certainly been even more difficult over the last couple of years because of the effects of the recession.”
The efforts Futures has made in streamlining its logistics operation has made it not only more environmentally responsible but also more cost effective and efficient. Additional driver awareness training has delivered savings on insurance premiums, while the company’s vehicles are tracked using a GPRS tracking system. Kemp explained: “This allows us to calculate shortest routes and benefit from greater fuel efficiency. An added benefit has been that we have also been able to offer a better service to our clients, in that we can now provide them with up-to-date information on the location of their deliveries.”
Futures has also invested in hybrid technology and runs two such vehicles in its fleet. At the moment, however, “fully electric vehicles are not fit for purpose as far as we’re concerned”, says Kemp.
People also feature largely in the Futures business model and Kemp has always been a firm believer in “giving opportunities to people who may not have been considered by other companies”. Staff development within the company is central and thanks to that employees have advanced through the business and stayed with Futures for many years.
The positive consequences of Futures’ hard work over the years have gone well beyond the direct business benefits, as Kemp explained: “We have definitely been noticed more because of our principles and we have attracted clients who care about sustainability and are like-minded to us.”
And the mission is also wider than the immediate world of Futures as far as she is concerned. “I believe it’s vital to get the message out in the market about what we’re doing with regards to sustainability drives. That influences change and brings pressure for action.”
What advice would she offer to other distributors with an interest in starting down this road but unsure of just where to begin? “Definitely start by making minor changes and you will find they all add up very quickly – printing on both sides of a sheet of paper, sorting waste, switching off computers for example. Then start evaluating the companies you’re working with, your suppliers, to determine if they are serious about their environmental credentials. Consider using only ISO accredited companies for example.
“Work with companies that are established in matters of sustainability because they will help you, offer you guidance and share their knowledge. Do one thing every day that makes a difference, no matter how small.”
Principle Cleaning Services and Futures Cleaning Supplies have formed a true working partnership over the 15 years they have been co-operating because their business values are very similar. Kemp pointed out: “Principle was very proactive early on and one of the first cleaning companies to buy into more ecological cleaning chemicals, for example.”
Of Futures Douglas Cooke said: “Since working with them, we have been impressed with their ongoing commitment to environmental improvements, green credentials and cleaning innovations. They suggest new and innovative sustainable cleaning methods for use in our client premises that have all been embraced by our clients - giving us an edge over sustainable methods used by our competitors. We have also worked together on paper saving initiatives in our office.”
Futures has also developed an online ordering system for Principle which automatically manages budgets – cutting down on unnecessary paperwork and administration.
In conclusion Cooked summed it up. “Everything we do together prioritises sustainability.”