Stephen Ashkin

Sustainability Theater: Make sure cleaning vendors are doing more than performance art.

Sept. 22, 2022

Schools and universities have been true leaders on sustainability for many reasons.  With a genuine interest in “doing it right,” education institutions can impart numerous lessons from their experience with the Covid pandemic.

Recalling the early days of the pandemic, Derek Thompson coined the term “hygiene theater.” He said that Covid-19 “has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.”

Although it was important to acknowledge occupant concerns, hygiene theater often did little more than waste money, time and resources.

Are we reporting our way to a false sense of security?

These same concerns are emerging when vendors make sustainability claims that are nothing more that performance art and do little to reduce the risk of harm to the environment, building occupants or employees.

Examples of what might be sustainability theater include a manufacturer placing a single, small solar panel on its roof while failing to address actual energy consumption; a product distributor leasing a single electric car or delivery vehicle while failing to address its fleet’s overall fuel efficiency; or a service provider promoting that it is owned by women or minorities yet failing to address the diversity, training, pay, benefits and other issues relating to its frontline workers.

Although these claims (and the marketing that often goes along with it) often make good theater, they often hide whether the vendor is making a real commitment to sustainability.

Avoiding sustainability theater

To avoid sustainability theater, a vendor in the cleaning industry must authentically disclose how its products and services affect the environment and people.  School and universities should consider requesting information on the following:

  • Who is it reporting to?  Connecting with numerous existing programs such as AASHE’s STARs, Climate Disclosure Program, ENERGY STAR, SmartWay Transport, LEED, WELL, B-Corp and more will indicate whether a vendor has a genuine commitment to sustainability. Simply put, some disclosure to respected organizations is an indicator of a real commitment, and certainly better than empty promises and theater.
  • Is its program managed by someone with expertise in sustainability?  Imagine hiring someone to teach a technical subject like chemistry.  One would expect that person to have the relevant training, credentials and experience relating to the subject. Unfortunately, far too often vendors hire or appoint someone to lead its sustainability efforts with little to no expertise in sustainability. To get a sense of someone’s expertise, check LinkedIn. If a background is loaded with sales, marketing, public relations, government affairs or other unrelated experience, theater may be the unintended result of this person’s lack of technical expertise in sustainability. And make no mistake about it – sustainability is highly technical and requires real expertise.
  • Consider if its numbers are objective and meaningful:  A vendor’s “numbers” will depend on what it does and what is important or “material.” For example, a manufacturer might report on its use of energy, water, waste and packaging; whereas a distributor of cleaning products might focus on the fuel efficiency of its delivery fleet; whereas a service provider might focus on diversity, wages, benefits, training, retention and other issues affecting its frontline workers.  Unfortunately, far too often vendors provide no data, data that is unverified, or data that does not address the vendor’s most important impacts. Each of those can be an indication that it is simply performance art.

As Thompson wrote about hygiene theater, let’s ensure that money, time and resources are being used effectively – and the same applies to avoiding sustainability theater.

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