The Social Equity Issue

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By Steven Ashkin

When the discussion turns to sustainability in the professional cleaning and carpet cleaning industries, the first thought that often comes to mind is an old definition of sustainability. Coined in 1987, that definition primarily refers to the use of natural resources in such a way that they are available for future generations.

Today, sustainability means much more. It includes protecting natural resources, yes, but it also includes taking steps to protect the environment; making profits based on fair charges that, for instance, do not undermine the professional carpet cleaning industry; developing operating efficiencies; and incorporating cost-saving strategies.

And it includes one more component: social equity. Among other things, social equity consists of providing safe working conditions, living wages, and healthcare benefits for workers; eliminating discriminatory policies; and giving back to the local community.

Unfortunately, the professional cleaning industry has not always had the best record when it comes to social equity. But it is not our fault. In many ways, it’s just the nature of the business.

Far too many customers remain very price sensitive and make cleaning and carpet care choices based primarily on costs. This has created a very cost-competitive environment, forcing some professional carpet cleaning companies to make decisions that not only do not foster social equity, but also can negatively impact the industry’s overall image.

While these practices may have helped the cleaning contractor be more cost competitive, the rest of us may have paid the price for it. What if a worker becomes ill or has a work-related injury? Many people with no health insurance end up in emergency rooms that can charge as much as $20,000 per visit depending on the circumstance.

You and I as taxpayers pick up that tab.

As to the wages, if employers do not pay a living wage to workers, then we — you and I once again — are picking up the tab in the form of social services.

Plus, these workers rarely are considered for long-term opportunities within a company. This often means they drift from one dead-end job to another, never having a chance to develop skills and make a contribution — to the company they are working for or their community.

The point is, a sustainable business with social equity initiatives in place helps everyone, not just individual workers. And as for the owners of these companies, they benefit as well. Major organizations in North America now want their vendors to validate their sustainability efforts, including social equity. Those that can confirm it get in the door. Those that cannot are turned away.

  • Social equity strategies
  • So now that we have a better idea of what social equity is all about, the reasons for it, and how it benefits our entire society, the question becomes how can carpet cleaning professionals, as well as everyone in the professional cleaning industry, incorporate it into their business operations?
  • Taking the following actions will help get you there:
  • Define what social equity is and how to incorporate it into your business operations. Set clear goals that can be met now, in a few months, and a year from now. A first step, for instance, might simply be phasing out the practice of classifying any employees as independent contractors.
  • Make sure all vehicles, chemicals, and equipment used for cleaning are safe and operating correctly and that workers have been trained how to use them.
  • Provide benefits such as health care and workers’ compensation. Depending on your state, failure to provide workers’ compensation for your employees can result in a steep fine; for instance, in Pennsylvania, fines up to $2,500 are possible along with one or more years in prison.
  • Hiring policies should be inclusive. When looking for an employee, it’s perfectly fine to look for someone skilled in carpet cleaning. It’s not okay if your hiring decisions are based on gender, country of origin, race, or other demographic markers. In addition, consider hiring workers with disabilities. Today, one in five Americans has a disability, such as injured veterans and those with sight, hearing, and other impairments; however, two-thirds of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed.
  • Become more involved in helping your community. Giving back after a significant storm or disaster impacting your community is great, but giving back on a regular basis is better. One California cleaning contractor sponsors soccer games for local teens. The company rents the field, but it also provides uniforms and shoes for the teens to play the game.

And, here’s a little secret: Giving back to your community just happens to be a powerful marketing strategy.

As you make these changes to your company’s practices, connect with other companies that promote sustainability and social equity in your community. You’re part of a team now, and teams learn from each other and help each other succeed.


Stephen Ashkin is president of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, Inc., and known in the professional cleaning industry as the leader in turning sustainability into cost savings. He can be reached through his website at ashkingroup.com.

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