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One of the feathers in the professional cleaning industry''s cap is the fact that, after many years of doubt and confusion, it embraced green and more sustainable cleaning on its own by listening to customer demand.
In fact, in recent years, this has reached the point that environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtered vacuum cleaners, low-moisture floor machines and recycling carpet extractors have essentially become the norm in the professional cleaning industry.
The impetus, as mentioned, was the end customer.
As they started demanding safer cleaning products with less impact on the environment, the industry responded.
However, this has not happened in all industry sectors and in all markets, particularly when it comes to sustainability.
Because of this, in the past 15 years, a number of state and federal government incentives have been initiated to fuel sustainability efforts by defraying some of its costs.
It is worth noting, especially during an election year, that on a federal level, many of these initiatives have been supported, expanded and renewed by both Democratic and Republican presidents.
President Bush continued many of the initiatives started by the Clinton administration, and the Obama administration has expanded many of these programs considerably, both to promote sustainability and, where possible, to help the economy and create green jobs.
Where's The Fuel?
The fuel, as we have called it, for more enhanced sustainability efforts usually comes in the form of tax credits, exemptions, rebates or grants from both state and federal governments.
Federal incentives, for instance, include energy credits and grants, loan guarantees, deductions for energy-efficient buildings and accelerated depreciation for some equipment in the hopes that businesses will select greener and more sustainable equipment.
Many of these incentives were initiated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, otherwise known as the stimulus program that was signed into law shortly after President Obama took office.
The act includes billions of dollars to help states develop their own energy efficiency programs and fosters state corporate tax deductions, property tax exemptions, sales tax rebates and utility incentives to promote sustainable initiatives and strategies of local businesses.
When it comes to generating renewable energy, some have viewed the stimulus program as a real "game changer."
This is because parts of the program allow for qualifying companies to take advantage of a tax credit on purchases of equipment used to produce renewable energy and a separate tax credit covering the cost of qualifying equipment in the form of a very inviting direct credit, designed to lure companies that cannot take advantage of the tax credit.
Of course, many of these initiatives, both on a federal and state level, do carry eligibility requirements, along with proof that the sustainable initiatives have been put into place.
For instance, an independent certification may be required for verification before businesses can take advantage of some federal sustainability initiatives.
The state of Kentucky provides an example of a state tax credit requirement when it comes to recycling.
Companies must submit a report and have an inspection done by the state by the end of each year in order to claim their credit.
Are Incentives Necessary?
As we know, many Americans were and still are apprehensive about the stimulus act of 2009, and some question whether sustainability incentives were necessary at all.
This is because a "business case" for corporate sustainability initiatives has grown significantly in recent years, even with the downturn in the economy — and maybe even because of it.
With long-term upward trends in the cost of energy and water, becoming more sustainable is no longer just a social issue — simply viewed as the right thing to do — but a fundamental business issue.
Business managers have grown to see it as a way to reduce costs, as well as reduce energy and water consumption and carbon footprints.
And, over the past couple of years, larger companies that have put sustainable strategies in place have begun encouraging or outright requiring that their suppliers do the same.
Although, by the mid-2000s, the business case for sustainability was becoming clearer and adopting more sustainable business operations was definitely the trend, it cannot be denied that the various incentives discussed earlier did give sustainability a boost.
If, for example, a company wanted to replace older, less energy-efficient equipment with new equipment that uses energy more sparingly, the tax credits and other initiatives did make the decision more attractive.
Securing Sustainability Credits
Many of the sustainability initiatives referenced here have been changing rapidly.
In some cases, the program had a specific lifespan and was not renewed by Congress.
In other situations, it has been altered. And, in still other cases, the program may have been expanded.
Because of this, businesses are encouraged to have a "sustainability czar," a person whose job it is to stay up-to-date on sustainability credits and incentives.
This is all the more important because some companies may already have in place activities that qualify for tax credits or other forms of incentives but may not be getting them because they simply did not know they qualify.
Along with appointing a key person to be in charge of a company''s sustainability efforts, all types of businesses, including those in all segments of our industry — manufacturers, distributors and end customers — must become more sustainability-focused.
Very often, this is accomplished by taking advantage of inexpensive, web-based "dashboard" systems that help measure and monitor the use of energy, water, waste, as well as consumables like the use of cleaning products.
This information can be, and often is, shared with all staffers to get everyone on the same sustainability page and evaluate the programs'' progress.
For companies, being more focused on sustainability can result in several significant benefits.
As referenced earlier, taking steps to reduce the consumption of energy and fuel, for example, does help lower costs.
It can also help a business run more efficiently.
And, with the help of the sustainability czar and a dashboard system, it can help companies take advantage of the grand prize: A government incentive that results in tax credits, grants or other benefits that are essentially money in the bank.
Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry, and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC, an electronic dashboard that allows organizations to measure and report on their sustainability efforts. He is also coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.