Running a Sustainable, Eco-Conscious Laundry Business is Good for the Planet – And Great for Your Bottom Line

Sixty-two degrees.

That was the average global temperature this past July, making it the hottest month on record, dating back to 1880.

Last July also marked the 43rd consecutive July and the 415th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One of the most notable weather headlines was the record-shattering heat wave that spread across Europe late in July, AccuWeather reported. France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom all set new all-time high temperature records. That includes temperatures of 101.7 degrees in Cambridge, England, and 108.7 degrees in Paris.

On the other side of the Northern Hemisphere, Alaska baked under extreme heat. On July 4, Anchorage hit the 90-degree mark for the first time in the city’s history.

The heat also helped fuel huge wildfires in Arctic locations such as Alaska, Siberia and Greenland.

The record temperatures have gone hand-in-hand with other climate extremes. Warming oceans have led to an early melt of sea ice in the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Human activities – principally the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation – are widely thought to be the cause of the global average temperature to increase at this unprecedented rate, according to Climate Signals.

As a result, a number of U.S. cities have begun to search for ways to lessen their carbon footprints by reducing fossil fuel consumption – and they’re looking at natural gas, the lifeblood of many vended laundries.

Berkeley, Calif., recently became the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of natural gas in new low-rise buildings, and it isn’t the only California community looking for ways to shift its buildings away from burning fossil fuels. Cities and towns across the state are considering measures to encourage developers to use only electric appliances in new buildings – and to skip installing natural gas lines for stoves, furnaces and water heaters.

In addition, New Jersey has drafted an energy plan that would seek to end natural gas use in buildings by 2030, and new Maine laws call for a reduction in natural gas use in buildings as well. Meanwhile, eight states, along with Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have established 100 percent “clean electricity” goals for the future.

In New York, a natural gas moratorium that covers Brooklyn, parts of Queens and Long Island already has impacted the building of at least eight laundromats, according the Michael Fanger of Eastern Funding, LLC.

“Unfortunately, natural gas has become a political issue,” noted Fanger, who serves as treasurer of the Woods Hole Research Center, which studies climate change impacts around the world and works with partners – from national governments to corporations – to identify and implement opportunities to reduce levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. “Although you may not want to do anything now, laundry owners would be wise to keep an eye on natural gas, its availability and what’s happening with their gas company. What kind of political pressure is your provider under?”

“An industry leader recently said that we need to be thinking about what it’s going to look like to be an industry ‘post fossil fuel,’” related Jim Whitmore, who owns Sunshine Express Laundry Center in Gloucester, Mass. “How are we going to go from where we are today to zero fossil fuel? That’s a big question – and a question we should be addressing as an industry.

“As huge consumers of fossil fuel, we – as an industry – are a target for scrutiny and government regulation,” he continued. “The more we can do to position ourselves in the best possible light and to increase our sustainability as an industry, the better off we’ll be. We will become better stewards of the resources we consume and better stewards of the environmental impact we cause.”

Bob Kerr is the co-founder and principal at Pure Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm. He sees three main “green trends” taking hold across the business community in general.

One of the areas that is clearly a major trend for many companies is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even utilizing science-based targeting to assure that what they’re planning will get them to their long-term goals.

“It’s been astonishing to see how many companies are doing so in the absence of any government push on it,” Kerr said. “You have associations forming in the U.S. to actually promote it. Of course, it involves energy efficiency, renewable energy, buying renewable energy certificates – just all of the various means of reducing both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Kerr’s second major trend, which is no stranger to self-service laundry owners, is the long-time effort to reduce water use and be as efficient with that use as possible.

“A third area on which a lot of companies are focused is zero waste,” Kerr stated. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to get down to absolute zero waste now, but it’s a goal – where business owners try to reduce any waste that will go to landfills or incineration. They’re looking for ways to lower the volume of waste through recycling and reuse.”

Along these same lines has been the growing trend toward reducing the use of plastics in packaging – using recycled paper board or similar materials in place of plastic. Within the last year, this has become a major focus, due to heightened awareness of plastics polluting our oceans.

“A lot of companies are pushing in that direction,” Kerr admitted.

Back in 2010 when she first launched Paradise Laundry as Sacramento’s “first eco-friendly laundromat,” it was a huge differentiator from the other “ZombieMats,” according to owner Deborah Dower.

“Over the past 10 years, more store owners have retooled, and new stores have been built – all with energy-efficient machines, LED lighting and so on,” Dower said. “That has leveled the playing field. But the bottom line is that all of the things we’ve done to ‘green’ our business and make it more sustainable has reduced our operating expenses, which to me is reason enough to ‘go green.’”

“Going green makes good common sense and also good economic sense,” explained Karl Hinrichs of HK Laundry in Armonk, N.Y. “On the purely economic side of the equation, most laundromats’ utility costs represent anywhere from 16 percent to 35 percent of their gross revenue. This is money coming straight off the top to pay for water, sewer, natural gas and electricity.

“On the environmental side, anything we can do to reduce our energy footprint is good social and environmental responsibility,” he added. “This planet only has a specific amount of natural resources, so it’s socially responsible to use those resources wisely and as efficiently as possible. To do otherwise is selfish and wasteful.”

Laundry Industry Trends

One of the biggest trends in the vended laundry industry in recent years has been the move to retool existing laundromats with the latest, most energy-efficient washers available. And you can’t get much “greener” or, at the same time, more practical than that.

“Every dollar invested in new washers will receive a return on your investment due to savings in utility and energy costs,” Hinrichs said. “A 50 percent savings in note payment, due to reduced utility costs, means that you’re purchasing the new machines at a net discount of 50 percent above and beyond your best price from the distributor.”

The new washers are microprocessor-controlled and have just three water changes, versus the older electromechanical washers with five water changes, according to Hinrichs. He added that washer design changes have reduced the amount of “dead water” below the bottom of the tub, saving even more water.

“More and more, new stores and laundries being retooled are installing high-speed washers,” Hinrichs noted. “The higher extraction rate reduces the amount of water in the clothes and, thus, reduces the drying time. Less water in the clothes means your customers are using significantly less natural gas to dry their clothes. In this case, going green means happier customers because they are saving time, and happier store owners because they have significantly reduced their gas consumption. It’s truly a win-win situation.”

Whitmore also pointed to store retools as the major current sustainability trend in the industry, adding that a second trend that goes hand-in-hand with the increased popularity of retooling is a reduced resistance to the cost differential between the older hard-mount washers and their more expensive soft-mount counterparts.

“Traditionally, there has been a resistance not only on the part of laundry owner but also on the part of distributors, who were reluctant to try to push the more expensive products due to competitive concerns,” he said. “But, lately, I’ve seen a reduced resistance to that cost difference.

“Invest those extra dollars in the expense of washers and the highest efficiency products you can buy. Two biggies are washers, as well as HVAC systems. The difference in cost between a low SEER rating and a standard SEER rating is a fair amount of money and the payback might be a little long; however, the net result is that your business is not only more efficient but, by default, it’s more competitive in the long run.”

“The push toward high-efficiency washing machines is obviously a critical industry trend,” agreed Kerr, whose company is currently working with the Coin Laundry Association on a study analyzing the correlation between store retooling and profitability. “More efficient lighting, as well as more efficient HVAC systems and water heaters. All of that fits into greenhouse gas energy reduction and greater water efficiency. They’re all trends that impact the laundromat business, and the industry is picking up on those and making use of them.”

Chris Ward, president of 4WARD Energy Solutions, based in Houston, noted that laundry owners need to look beyond merely how much more money certain “green” initiatives might cost.

“What you need to do is look long-term and know that you’re promoting the fact you’re a sustainable business and that you’re in it for the long haul,” explained Ward, whose energy consulting firm works with vended laundry operators through a CLA-sponsored energy program. “You want to build a relationship with your customers. This is just one aspect of your business where you’re doing that – to support the planet, to support your community and to support your customer base. And it’s probably going to save you some money on your energy and utility costs.”

Floors, walls and lighting are three basic store elements where laundry owners possibly can go a bit greener, according to retail design consultant Linda Cahan.

“Epoxy flooring – typically made from natural stones and organic resins – is a great example of a flooring system that is environmentally friendly, as well as being excellent for laundromats because it’s waterproof and any spilled chemicals won’t ruin it,” Cahan suggested. “For the walls, always use non-toxic, low-VOC paints. And, with regard to lighting, LED bulbs of 6.5 watts or higher in the 3,000K range will make the space look bright and welcoming. After all, customers need to be able to see the stains on their clothing for pre-spotting. Also, for those who still read real books, good lighting is vital. Plus, it just feels safer.”

In addition, small day-to-day maintenance issues can go a long way toward sustainability goals, according to Brad Steinberg of PWS, headquartered in South Gate, Calif.

“Cleaning dryer ducts and swamp coolers, wrapping water storage tanks, snaking drains and checking for leaks can significantly reduce your laundry’s consumption,” he said.

Beyond the Basics

After a laundry owner has done the basics – newer equipment, LED lighting, recycling, weather-proofing the facility, etc. – what’s next? What are some green initiatives store operators might not be considering?

Some of the non-standard green initiatives owners may want to consider, according to Hinrichs, are astronomical timers for their exterior signs and parking lot lights, timers for water heating systems and hot water recirculation lines, solar technology to preheat water, double-pane windows and air locks to reduce the air exchange with the outside.

Kerr suggested that laundry owners could perhaps guide their customers toward the use of safer, more environmentally friendly detergents.

“Making those available seems like a small thing,” he admitted. “But, once you start doing that incrementally over hundreds of uses, it can make a significant difference in what’s being discharged into the environment. That’s not necessarily new technology as it may simply be a new initiative and an education of the consumer.”

The strongly eco-focused Spin Laundry Lounge in Portland, Ore., does a great job of educating its customers and offering safe laundry options in a fun-looking space. Spin Laundry sells only environmentally friendly soaps, bleaches and stain removers – all free of chemicals and fragrances commonly found in commercial laundry products. And the business’ staff are always on hand to make detergent recommendations.

“Beyond detergents, some hotels use recyclable polymers, which can be reused and achieve greater efficiency,” Kerr said. “This may not be applicable or feasible for most laundromats, but it’s certainly an interesting example of new technology.”

Clearly, solar power is not new or leading-edge technology. However, Kerr sees solar energy as becoming a real possibility for some store owners – especially those located in smaller, single-level facilities and, more importantly, those who own their own buildings.

“We’re to the point now where solar energy is less costly than coal-based energy and, to some extent, even natural-gas-based energy,” he explained. “Solar costs are going to keep coming down. The decrease in those costs over the last three or four years has been dramatic, especially in many urban areas.”

“Looking down the road, at some point laundry owners might be able to replace all of the glass in their storefront with a clear window that is actually solar-powered and able to generate power for the business,” Fanger explained.

Electrical solar power and water recycling are two major green technology areas that are going to become more popular “as the cost-benefit analysis becomes more appealing,” Steinberg noted.

Cahan pointed out that laundry owners looking to take sustainability a step further can use recyclable bags and paper products.

“A recyclable fabric bag that is chic and doesn’t scream ‘Laundromat!’ but is unique to your specific business is a great way to keep plastic bags out of landfills,” she explained. “It should be washable. Also, smaller tote bags for detergent and other sales with the same graphics would be ideal for repetitive purchases. I also would suggest that the handles of the smaller bag be able to loop over the larger bag so that they can be brought together to the laundromat.”

In a laundry’s restroom, Cahan urged that all paper products – from toilet paper to paper towels – be recyclable. “As a part of your branding, be sure to have a sign in the restroom that tells people what they’re using and why,” she said. “People respect a retailer’s respect for the Earth.”

“The ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra has become commonplace, but you can take the idea further,” Ward said. “Close the loop on your recycling program by choosing recycled paper. Carry that waste reduction into your attendants’ break room by replacing disposable products, such as paper towels and plastic cups, with cloth towels and porcelain mugs. You also may opt for refillable office supplies like tape dispensers and pens, which can save money and waste, when compared to disposable versions. Also, consider switching from water bottles to a water cooler for your employees.”

According to owner Nick Bernaiche, being sustainable and lessening its environmental footprint is one of the core missions at Clean N Green Laundromat in Glastonbury, Conn.

“For our wash-dry-fold service, we provide multi-sized, reusable laundry totes and bags for hauling dirty laundry and packing clean laundry,” he explained. “In addition, we are continually working to reduce the amount of waste that leaves our facility, and we are constantly filling up our three large recycling bins with empty detergent bottles, cardboard packaging, plastic, cans, bottles and anything else we find that is recyclable. As our customers become more and more conscious of which bins they’re throwing their trash into, we’re making less and less trips to the dumpster, which means less trash being burned or filling up landfills.

“We also have started recycling all of the plastic film we use and receive. It used to only be plastic grocery bags that you could return to the store, now there is a whole list of plastic film items that can be recycled.”

Some laundry owners can become more sustainable in their operations by choosing the source of their electricity, according to Whitmore.

“In many instances, at least where I’m located, owners have choices in terms of how their electricity is sourced,” he said. “You might pay a slight premium for electricity with less emissions-contributing sources such as hydropower, wind power or solar power. To the extent you can do that, I think it’s a good practice. I do it, and I pay a slight premium for it. But I don’t think twice about it.”

Whitmore also suggested that laundry owners really concerned about climate change should look into purchasing carbon offsets, which basically are reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made to compensate for emissions created elsewhere. For example, an individual might purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by personal air travel.

“The idea is to become conscious of what you’re doing and to pay for polluting in some form or fashion.” Whitmore explained. “First, you calculate what you use. For example, I produce about 46 tons of carbon per year by conducting the life I conduct, and my laundry produces 129 tons of carbon annually.

“I can buy into programs that might subsidize a wind farm, a solar farm or the planting of trees in an area where they would have an impact. I’ve been buying carbon offsets for my flight activity, and I’m in the process of buying carbon offsets for my laundry business.”

The Bottom Line

“I try to invest in what will give me the best ROI, as well as the largest customer satisfaction index,” Hinrichs explained. “The CSI represents tangible improvements customers can see and use. Some CSI improvements would include new equipment, new signage, free Wi-Fi or cellphone charging stations. Typically, new washers will feature a strong ROI and a huge CSI, versus a new water heater, which will have a good ROI and no CSI, because no one sees your water heater. Washers and dryers have a lot more appeal than behind-the-scenes investments such as on-demand water heaters or solar panels.

“When ROI, CSI and going green all boast high values, you’re getting an excellent return on your money, increasing your customer satisfaction and helping the environment. And that’s a truly winning combination.”

For Whitmore, it’s about doing well by doing good.

“In this case, it’s doing good for the environment, which plays out for the health, well-being and sustainability of our planet’s resources,” he said. “It’s more and more the topic of the day. And, as climate issues seem to grab headlines all over the world, it’s no longer a fringe topic. It’s becoming mainstream, and it is receiving attention on both sides of the aisle. The bottom line is that it’s a lot harder today to ignore the trends, and we need to own our responsibility as consumers of fossil-fuel-related products.”

With that said, when Kerr visits a potential client to discuss environmental sustainability, he always focuses on the bottom line. How does this help increase profitability and the operation’s efficiency?

“Walmart has been one of our clients for years, and Walmart discovered early on that sustainability in terms of environmental issues also means less use of unnecessary energy, less use of water, more efficient and innovative materials, and the fact that the notion of ‘green’ is really linked to innovation,” he said. “It’s linked to doing business more effectively and providing better service and products to your customers.

“It’s a business bottom-line offer, and it’s a way of attracting customers. To me, ‘green’ is linked to innovation, profitability, building a customer base and building customer loyalty. It’s a business issue, not just a social issue. It’s a bottom-line issue with real business benefits.”

[Editor’s Note: For those interested in learning more about running a “green,” sustainable laundry business, the CLA white paper, “Sustainability Matters: Environmentally Focused Initiatives for Self-Service Laundry Owners,” is available at]

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