Business for the Common Good

Here, Tim Thorlby tells a story of how a church’s vision of ‘good news’ for its neighbours can become a story of the ‘Common Good’. He argues that if the Church is serious about loving our neighbours, the pursuit of social justice and strengthening communities, then it must engage with business. 

Rediscovering the social purpose of business through a cleaning company

In October 2017, a new business was launched in the City of London. There were speeches and canapés in a smart conference suite overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral. Investors, employees and the company’s first clients mingled. Nothing unusual, you might think – just another day in the City?

Except something was very different. A group of cleaners were in the room too. But they weren’t cleaning or even on duty, they were eating canapés and mingling as well. And the business itself was certainly rather unusual for the City of London – a business with social purpose at its heart.

Clean for Good Ltd began work in 2017 and continues to grow today. It is a cleaning company which now cleans offices, cafes, churches and community centres across London. What makes it different is that it is London’s first ethical contract cleaning company – delivering a professional cleaning service to our customers but doing so in a way which respects cleaners and provides fairness and dignity for them at work. In a sector which is now notorious for low wages and undignified working conditions, Clean for Good is a business with a social purpose, changing the way that cleaners are treated and seeking to create change across the cleaning sector for the good of cleaners, customers, the sector itself and society. 

What does ‘good’ look like in practice? 

Clean for Good is a fully accredited Living Wage Employer, paying the London Living Wage (currently 30% above the Government’s minimum wage), or higher, to all of our staff, all of the time. We are one of the few cleaning companies in London which has made this commitment. 

We also commit to training and managing our cleaners properly, ensuring that our cleaning managers do not have so many contracts to handle that they cannot invest time in our team. We also don’t offer zero-hours contracts, so our cleaners know what hours they will be working. Where possible, we help to build up a cleaner’s hours across contracts when they want more work. 

You could call our approach ‘Living Wage Plus’, but it goes deeper than just a different approach to management. It is a different mindset too. In recognising that every human being is made in the image of God, we strive to give our cleaners the same fairness and dignity at work which is enjoyed by so many others. That is why, when setting up the business, we interviewed cleaners to find out what they wanted from a ‘good cleaning job’. That is why we invited them to our launch, to mingle with our investors.  That is why we pay them a fair wage and manage them properly. Our customers are important to us, but our cleaners are important too. 

We are not a charity, we are a business. Our social purpose is locked in as a handful of churches and charities own the controlling shares. There are no subsidies, so the cost of all this fairness and dignity goes straight into the hourly price for our cleaning. We are one of the more expensive contract cleaners in London, and we have been told several times that our business will never succeed because of this.  

In many ways, Clean for Good embodies the ‘Fair Trade’ story, but for UK workers. If you want an ethical cleaning service, then it is going to cost you more. So far, we have found customers willing to pay this higher price for a professional cleaning service, because they care about their cleaners just like we do. If we can keep growing and finding customers willing to pay the real price of cleaning, if we can break even and achieve financial sustainability, then we will have demonstrated that ethical cleaning is viable as a business model. We are well on the way right now. Our aim then is to challenge the rest of the sector to follow suit.  We want to change cleaning for good.  

What problem are we trying to fix?

The core challenge for us – and indeed much of the sector – is that there has been a race to the bottom on prices in recent years. Employers who outsource their cleaning ask for three quotes, compare them primarily on price and award the contract to the lowest bidder. Cleaning companies have responded to price competition by holding down wages, stripping out employment benefits and cutting back on management to the point where these companies are not just ‘lean’ but have become rather ‘mean’. 

The challenge here is really the behaviour of the customers in the market place who have lost sight of what lies underneath their competitive price. The supply chain is broken, and there is a real lack of transparency in it. The customer may not understand what a lower price actually means in practice, not least because they may never meet their cleaners, put a name or face to them, or hear what their working conditions are like. 

In our experience, when customers understand what difference a higher price makes to the cleaners, they are often prepared to pay it. 

So, our main challenge as a business is to educate customers in the market place to recognise that there is a ‘fair price’ – currently well above the market price – which they will need to pay if their cleaners are to receive a fair deal and dignified working conditions. The London Living Wage is currently 30% higher than the Government’s Minimum Wage. We need to remake the market with new expectations about pricing. This is not about charity, it is about justice – a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. 

Business for the Common Good?

In the UK, some three out of four jobs are in the private sector and everyone relies on businesses to provide them with services – from the electricity we use to boil our kettles, to shops and restaurants and the couriers delivering our parcels. The way that our markets work and the way that our businesses behave should therefore be of great concern to everyone. They really do shape our lives. 

Business can deliver some amazing products and services and provides fulfilling work for many. We also know that much is wrong with how our markets operate – low wage jobs, insecure work, extreme pay inequalities, environmental pollution – rarely a day goes by without a ‘bad business’ story. Sometimes better regulation is the answer. But there is another solution too. 

As customers, investors, employees or business owners, we have agency within the market place to shape it and make it better, particularly through greater fairness and dignity at work. This in turn has a positive social impact on those whose incomes, security and wellbeing is improved. How we do business can therefore make a significant contribution to the Common Good. Every customer decision shapes the market, every business decision has a social impact. We all need to think through how our decisions impact on others. 

A role for the Church in business?

Clean for Good was dreamt up in a church in the City of London, the Parish of St Andrew by the Wardrobe, as their way of serving the needs of low paid cleaners working in nearby businesses. With support from the Centre for Theology & Community and then investment from the Church Mission Society and others, this dream has become a business. It is growing today because of this teamwork, as well as the support of customers – of all shapes and sizes – who want to do the right thing for their cleaners. 

Clean for Good shows how a church’s vision of ‘good news’ for its neighbours can become a story of the ‘Common Good’. There are not many church-inspired businesses, but there is scope for more. If the Church is serious about wanting to love its neighbour, pursue social justice and build strong local communities then it must learn to engage positively and whole-heartedly with the business world. 

Tim Thorlby

Tim Thorlby is Managing Director of Clean for Good and is Development Director at the Centre for Theology & Community where he leads their work on missional enterprise.