Recalling the triple bottom line

Recalling the 'triple bottom line' and what it means for the cleaning industry.

Twenty-five years ago John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line” (TBL) and redefined what sustainability was all about.

This year Elkington announced he was recalling the term, stating it was time to rethink the concept. Stephen P. Ashkin weighs in on what this means for the cleaning industry.

TBL was designed to replace the original, 1987 definition of sustainability created by the United Nations Brundtland Commission.  The Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

According to Elkington, TBL is framework designed to evaluate a company’s profits and losses when it comes to its impacts on people, planet, and profits. These three terms reference the following:

  • The People component refers to fair and equitable business practices involving company workers along with steps to give back to the local community.
  • Planet essentially refers to a company’s endeavors to “do no harm” when it comes to the environment.
  • Profits have nothing to do with limiting a company’s revenue. To the contrary, it focuses on ensuring a company is profitable while also employing fair and honorable business practices.

However, Elkington announced in June 2018 that he is “recalling” the term triple bottom line, just like a car manufacturer might recall an automobile that fails safety tests or has a faulty part. His reason? Sustainability has essentially become an accounting term.

“It is no longer being measured in terms of the well-being of billions of people and the health of our planet,” Elkington said. “The sustainability sector’s record in moving the needle on those goals has been decidedly mixed. While there have been successes, our climate, water resources, oceans, forests, soils, and biodiversity are all increasingly threatened. It is time to either step up—or to get out of the way.”

So, if TBL is being recalled and the UN’s definition of sustainability is now considered old hat, what does sustainability mean today, and more specifically, what does it mean for the professional cleaning industry in Australia and around the world?

While we are still in limbo to some extent, what seems to be replacing these old definitions of sustainability is the idea that sustainability is all about efficiency. This applies to our industry and most business sectors.

Efficiency: Efficiency, as we are using the word here, is a long-term strategy that addresses the need to reduce consumption and waste while still meeting the requirements of an organisation. This is important because if an organisation doubles in size, it is not unreasonable to expect it to use more resources. Therefore, the key is how efficiently those additional resources are used.

Efficiency is one of the first and most important steps on the journey toward sustainability. Not only does it help reduce an organisation’s environmental impact, but it typically saves the company money as well.

We have already witnessed efficiency at work in the professional cleaning industry. Recently I worked with a distribution company to help them reduce consumption and by so doing, reduce costs. The program consists of three key elements:

Technology: Distributors involved with the program had access to a sustainability dashboard tool, an online system that can be used on any computer. The dashboard monitors fuel, water, energy use, and other metrics while also providing instruction on low and no-cost improvements that distributors can make to become more efficient and lower their operating costs.

Benchmarking: Benchmarking refers to two types of information: historical data, regarding how things have been in the past, and current data, showing how things are today when it comes to the use of fuel, energy, water, and other resources. This data is essential to the success of the program because the sustainability dashboard tool has access to international information providers that help distributors select products that use energy more efficiently, reduce consumption, and help them reduce fuel consumption.

Awards: One of the key aspects of the program is that it also distinguishes those distributor that have been able to reduce consumption, become more sustainability focused, and reduce operating costs. Awards and other signs of appreciation confirm someone’s work is valued and typically encourage others to work even harder to gain the same recognition.

As to the results: the distributors involved with the program for two years or longer have reported saving, on average, $20,000 annually, and it is generally believed that this is just the start. Efficiency, as we referenced earlier, is a journey. Many distributors are finding new ways to be more efficient, further helping to reduce costs.

Efficiency and contract cleaning: We now have an overview of how one major distributor managed to become more efficient in their business operations, and by doing so, reduce consumption and lower operating costs. Some of these steps can be used by cleaning contractors. However, distributors are focused on selling products, whereas contractors are focused on providing services. That means contractors will need to take different steps to become more efficient. Among them are the following:

Conduct floorcare audits: Carpet cleaning and floorcare are labour intensive and require the use of many different types of cleaning solutions and water. Contractors should work with their customers to conduct a floorcare audit. The audit will determine which carpeted and hard-surface floor areas need the most and the least attention, along with the types of cleaning attention they need, such as extraction, strip and refinish, or no floor finish. By spending more time on those areas that need more frequent attention and less on other areas, not only is consumption reduced, but so are labor costs, which helps reduce operating costs overall.

Group workers and clients: Having cleaning workers drive in their own vehicles to locations to be cleaned is inefficient because it wastes fuel. Cleaning workers should all report to a central office and then drive in one vehicle to client locations. Further, locations should be grouped together, by geographic area. And traffic conditions must be considered. Save more fuel by arranging cleaning schedules based on which locations are nearest and have the least amount of traffic at specific times.

Use more sustainability-focused cleaning products

For example, using cold water for carpet extracting requires less energy; using dry carpet cleaning methods eliminates the millions of gallons of water used to clean carpet; microfiber cloths and mop heads are much more efficient, using less chemical and water, than terry cloth and string mops.


While the Internet of Things is still in its infancy in professional cleaning, some IoT-controlled floor machines, for example, may be able to use water and cleaning solution more efficiently. These machines are programmed to clean floors and operate more precisely, reducing waste. Further, IoT-monitored soap and paper dispensers can indicate exactly when supplies are needed, helping to reduce waste, costs, and improve worker productivity. (Workers no longer have to check if dispensers need replenishing)

Recycling programs

Contractors should take the lead in helping their clients develop and advance recycling programs for their facilities. Further, they should investigate ways to reduce waste, especially of non-recyclable materials. For instance, some contractors have developed ways to eliminate the use of plastic liners. In a very large facility, hundreds of liners may be used—and replaced—every day. This is costly and these liners often end up in landfills where they can take years to disintegrate.

Sustainability color coding

When cleaning contractors arrive at their client’s facilities to clean, they often find overhead lights are on, computers and other electronics are on, vending machines are operating, HVAC units are still running, and more. This practice is an inefficient use of energy, and it’s costly. To help, some contractors have worked with building managers to color code each of these devices. A green dot on a device, for example, may mean leave it on; if a blue dot is noted, turn it off; if a yellow dot, ask if the system is to remain on or look for specific instructions. Possibly the device is to be left on Monday through Friday but turned off on the weekends.

The whys

There are many more examples we could discuss of how cleaning contractors can operate more efficiently and sustainably. But some may question why taking these steps is even necessary. The first reason we have already mentioned: efficiency invariably results in cost savings.

But the second reason is that efficiency and sustainability will be the door openers for cleaning contractors in the coming years. Some countries around the globe are implementing new regulations to further sustainability, and many organisations and entire business sectors are leading the way. When hiring cleaning contractors or any vendors, these sustainability-focused organisations want all their vendors to be on the same sustainability team.

Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about green cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specialising in green cleaning and sustainability. He can be reached at

This article first appeared in the September/October issue of INCLEAN magazine. To subscribe click here

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