Schools and universities clearly have been among the early adopters of the green movement.

Among the greening options for schools and universities, one of the "low-hanging fruits" is green cleaning. Green-cleaning products include cleaning chemicals; sanitary paper products, such as toilet tissue and hand towels; and janitorial equipment.

As the green-cleaning movement matures, institutions are becoming more sustainable themselves, and are looking beyond purchasing green products; they want to buy from green or sustainable companies.

Four steps will help a school or university launch a sustainability program or improve an existing one:

  • Get educated. Many so-called sustainability programs are nothing more than environmental programs with a fancy name. Understanding the differences is essential; it will affect what information needs to be collected. It is important to be prepared to answer questions about why some things were included and others were not.

  • Use an existing "roadmap" such as the one developed by the Global Reporting Initiative or join the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. These organizations can identify more easily which indicators should be tracked. If there are plans to share the information with others (including with staff, parents, alumni or supply chain) or compare performance with other schools and universities, it is important to address critical issues and report them consistently.

  • Once the various indicators have been chosen for tracking, determine how each indicator will be measured. Some indicators or issues are important, but capturing the data may be elusive or even impossible. When deciding which data need to be collected, it is most efficient to use existing data and existing methods of data collection. For example, using the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Existing Buildings Rating System offers many measures for environmental impacts associated with a building (e.g. water, electricity, etc.).

    After deciding the indicators and how to measure them, you should determine who owns the data (e.g. facilities own the environmental data, human resources owns social equity info, accounting owns financial data, etc.).

  • Perhaps most important, decide before beginning who is going to use the data and for what. Developing an annual sustainability report that is posted on a website is different from developing a "tool" that will be used to manage and transform an institution. If the goal is the latter, then use indicators and metrics that will provide frequent feedback. That means data collection and input should be reasonably easy.

Stephen Ashkin is executive director of the Green Cleaning Network, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit educational organization. He can be reached at SteveAshkin@GreenCleaningNetwork.org.