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What Does Sustainability Mean Today?

Stephen Ashkin

Sustainability is one of those buzz words we often hear when we discuss green and environmental issues. It typically applies to our use of natural resources; social responsibility; fair business profits; agriculture; the use of green cleaning products; etc.

While the word sustainability seems to be getting more and more “buzz,” there seems to be growing confusion as to what it really means. Making matters more problematic, even organizations such as the United Nations and other respected, worldwide bodies that have officially defined the word in the past, are now revising those definitions.

Let’s get a better understanding of what the term has meant in the past and how it has evolved into the 21st-century concept of sustainability as we know today.

In 1713, the term Nachhaltigkeit was used in a German forestry handbook. It meant “sustained yield,” and referred to a practice of harvesting just enough trees each year so that the forest could naturally regenerate tree growth. It first appeared in an English forestry publication in the mid-19th century with the same meaning.

In time, the word sustainability became more inclusive. Instead of just referring to the sustainable use of forestry products, it included animals, fish, plants, and other items used for food along with water resources.

Big Change in the 1980s

We should note that even though the concept of sustainability expanded, at this point, it was not a buzzword. In fact, we rarely heard it. But all that changed in the 1980s.

The oil crises of the early and then the late 1970s woke many people up to the fact that we were becoming increasingly dependent on many natural resources such as fossil fuels that may not be available for future generations. Steps were needed to slow this use and dependence and look for renewable alternatives.

With this in mind, in 1987 the UN’s Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as a concept designed to “meet the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Jump ahead to the 2005 World Summit on Social Development, and the concept of sustainability changed once again. Now it had three parts:

  • Economic development, based on fair business practices;
  • Social commitment, such as giving back to communities and providing living wages and benefits to workers; and
  • Environmental protection; using resources responsibly and taking steps to protect the environment.

So where are we today?

Well, I have good news for you. While all these past definitions are still valid today, we can narrow it all down to one word: efficiency. Sustainability today is all about operating hotels and all businesses more efficiently.

Becoming more efficient means taking steps to reduce consumption over the long-term. This can help reduce costs, minimize risks to our businesses, limit our use of and dependence on natural resources, and protect the environment, all at the same time.

To better understand how this new definition works let’s explore the following scenario.

A hotel property purchases thousands of dollars in cleaning supplies every year. Let’s say our hotel works with the following two distributors, distributor A and distributor B.

Distributor A

Distributor A is very tuned-in to sustainability and as such, A’s business operations are very efficient. A’s made sure her fleet of vehicles is new and the most energy efficient available; steps have been taken to use electricity, fuel, and water more efficiently, resulting in significantly reduced consumption; there is a very active recycling and waste reduction program in place; and only green-certified products are used in the facility.

According to most studies, the square foot operating costs of a 20,000 square foot warehouse and office such as A’s should run approximately $2.50 per square foot. This includes fuel, electricity, water, trash collection, etc. This amounts to $50,000 annually.

Performance data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that A should be able to reduce operating costs from 10 percent to more than 30 percent because of her sustainability initiatives. This reflects a potential savings at A’s 20,000-square-foot warehouse of $5,000 to $15,000 annually.

Distributor B

Distributor B has not implemented sustainability initiatives. Fleet vehicles are not new and do not use fuel efficiently. No steps have been taken to reduce water, fuel, or energy consumption, there are no waste reduction programs in place, and recycling is “hit and miss.”

B is not operating his business efficiently. Because of this, he is not able to take advantage of any cost savings. Plus, B’s business has no buffers: if fuel supplies are limited, there are more chances B will not be able to make deliveries compared to our more efficient Distributor A. This puts B’s entire business at risk. Further, B does not have the “wiggle room” to offer you, his customer, cost discounts nor can B be as competitive as A. Without the savings realized through sustainability efforts, if B’s operating costs are $15,000 higher than A’s, B just has no choice but to charge more.

Hotel owners and managers already adopting sustainability initiatives need to help more distributors, and more of their vendors, operate like Distributor A. Encourage your vendors to provide you with facts and figures as to such things as the following:

  • What steps they are now or recently taken to reduce fuel and water consumption;
  • How they have reduced waste;
  • Their Energy Star score; and
  • Recycling programs in place.

The bottom-line is this: we are all in this together. The more efficiently you operate your hotel property, the more efficient you expect your vendors to be. It’s a win-win and a cost savings to boot. Becoming more efficient is what sustainability is all about.

Stephen Ashkin is President of The Ashkin Group and known in the professional cleaning industry as the father of green cleaning and the industry leader, turning sustainability into cost savings. He can be reached at steveashkin@ashkingroup.com.


  1. I respectfully disagree with this analysis.
    The evolution has many more steps and they are complex, glocal (global principles / national – local action) and massively debated.
    The Travelism (Travel & Tourism) sector has engaged diversely and increasingly – probably since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and under the pressures of the SDG/Climate Summits in 2015.
    Definitions tended to represent the interests /views of the group seeking to establish them (and remain a great talking point) but are no more than a top level guideline (in my view)
    John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line of Economic, Social and Environmental balance has held sway for 20 years in most public, private and civil society policy formulation.
    We would argue, at SUNx – – the Strong Universal Network, that Climate Change Response is eXistential, cross cutting and ultimately overriding. Extreme weather is increasing dramatically, and resources for life – particularly water, food and the air we breathe are seriously threatened. Fiercer Hurricanes, longer droughts, accelerating sea level rises and massive storm surges bring flooding, fires, starvation, poverty, migration and conflict.
    Our core products are in the front line – transport (particularly aviation), coastal facilities, hotels and infrastructure will need radical transformation and support – just look at last year’s Caribbean hurricanes.
    We are trying to make a case for a general framework rather than a definition …we call this Impact-Travel (actually coined by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum)
    Impact-Travel means MEASURED to manage: GREEN to grow: 2050-PROOF to innovate. That means using big data and sensors. It means low carbon, renewable energy, socially inclusive, resource efficient, cloud connected and biodiversity conserving.
    This means the entire Travelism value chain will have to transform to be SUSTAINABLE. And it means building this transformation into our education systems from school through university. We can set the path, but it is the next generations that will have to tread it.