The green standard
Increasing numbers of environmentally friendly products are available — from office supplies to furniture, and technology products to lab supplies — and government purchasing professionals are looking at new contracts with a green lens. As local government leaders institute environmentally preferable policies and programs, purchasing professionals are boning up on their product knowledge and trying new purchasing methods to meet environmental goals while staying within their budgets.
Following the money
Having increased by more than 400 percent in the last three years, green building programs are on the rise among the top 200 most populated counties in the country, according to a recent report from the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the American Institute of Architects, both based in Washington. The growth in greener building is attributed to local leadership and the sharing of ordinances and resolutions among counties and cities.
But, green buildings can do only so much to help reduce energy use and waste. They have to be augmented with renewable energy credits, hybrid fleet vehicles, biofuels, reduced garbage collection coupled with increased recycling, water use management, energy efficiency evaluations and more eco-friendly products and services.
The demand for greener products and services has prompted some cities and counties to hire sustainability directors and recycling experts, and has, in many cases, changed the government purchasing professional’s role. Public purchasers are seeing a greater need for integration among departments and are looking for ways to work with other local and state agencies. They also have had to become versed in eco-labeling language to ensure the products they select have specific certifications and are not making false or misleading claims.
Buying in The Emerald City
Some cities and counties are taking the lead on sustainable purchasing and are becoming examples for others to follow. Seattle leaders, for example, have been “buying green” for years. “A series of local ordinances date back to the 1970s and provide the legal and policy framework to make green purchasing a priority and a mandate,” says Nancy Locke, the city’s purchasing manager. “Mayor Nickels and the city council have continued to renew and update the ordinances to stay up to date with the most current knowledge and best practices. Having such clear ordinance authority, established early on, gives us our strongest tool to ensure all departments pursue a green purchasing standard.”
Seattle’s Green Purchasing Program aims to promote goods, materials, services and capital improvements that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, purchasing contracts include several mandates, such as using 100-percent recycled paper for city work, duplex document production, toxin-free chemicals in pesticide and facility management contracts and reduced Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic chemicals (PBTs) in products the city buys.
In selecting from the top-rated bids or proposals, the city requires bidders to identify any PBTs in their products and may require them to describe environmental benefits of their products or services. The city also has used environmental scoring as a substantial part of the selection criteria for computer hardware, cleaning chemicals, paint, copier equipment and paper products.
The Seattle Purchasing Department taps into green experts who work with the city to help prepare strategies and bids. “Sometimes these are champions that work for different organizations or companies, but their personal knowledge or commitment makes them extremely valuable to our base of expertise. These experts encourage us and are often the ones who point out opportunities and help prepare strategies and specifications for the city’s bids,” Locke says.
In the last five years, Seattle officials have made more specific efforts to use cooperative purchasing as a tool to accomplish their environmental purchasing objectives. It joined the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based U.S. Communities Green Purchasing Program to gain access to a broad line of environmentally certified products and services. The program identifies items in its contracts that meet third-party environmental certification standards, including EcoLogo, Green Seal and Energy Star, and public agencies can search the group’s Web site to find products’ environmental information. “Cooperative purchasing allows us easier access to environmentally preferable product lines. Sometimes the products are emerging technologies that don’t yet lend themselves to an independent city bid; sometimes it allows us easy access to a wider share of green products,” Locke says. “Our mayor has committed to serving as a model for our residents, companies and public agencies in our use of green products. Cooperative purchasing allows us to assist agencies with easy-access to our own green contract bid results.”
No rules, just right
Hennepin County, Minn., instituted its Environmentally Preferable Purchasing and Green Building Program in 1997 and changed the name in April 2001 to the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing and Waste Reduction Resolution after county officials studied waste growth projections and disposal trends. The resolution is not guided by a specific ordinance, but is purposefully unspecific in nature. “We feel it gives our program more flexibility in a time of changing technologies, products, priorities, certifications, etc.,” says Nathan Reinbold, environmentally preferable purchasing/recycling specialist. “Our resolution is written in general language to allow us to accomplish the most without being restricted. Hennepin didn’t want certain certifications or a detailed resolution/policy to hamper what we set out to do in the first place: buy green and be green, while saving green.”
Without a specific ordinance, Hennepin County can choose the most appropriate products for its needs, rather than follow specific standards that can be restrictive. However, Reinbold says the county is moving to become more standardized to close loopholes that defeat the purpose of the green purchasing program.
Hennepin County purchasers look for environmentally preferable certifications, such as EcoLogo and Green Seal, when making purchasing decisions, and they consider the amount of waste that will be generated by the products they buy to help minimize the amount of toxic materials that are brought in and have to be disposed. They also aim to reduce the amount of packaging needed for products and often buy in bulk to limit packaging waste.
Hennepin County’s Green Purchasing Program works with county departments to help purchase environmentally preferable products, create resolutions, lead workshops and report on green purchasing progress. “Being the largest county in Minnesota, we feel we have the role, responsibility and resources to pilot and implement green products and practices to show to the rest of the state that it can be done,” Reinbold says. “Most importantly, purchasing can be done in a way that minimizes costs while still protecting the environment.”
In 2005, the county established a Lead by Example Incentive Fund for county departments attempting to reduce waste or purchase green products. The fund offers $100,000 annually to be used on innovative waste reduction, recycling and environmentally preferable purchasing projects. The awards typically are between $5,000 and $25,000, and have helped with bulk computer purchases, using compost on roadway slopes to prevent erosion, and buying bulk dispensing supplies and chemicals to facilitate a switch to green cleaners.
To measure progress on green purchases, Reinbold receives reports from vendors detailing the lower toxicity rates of and recycled content in products. Hennepin County also measures its success by the number of buildings that are being cleaned in a “green” way.
Since the county instituted its environmentally preferable purchasing program, demand for guidance in sustainable purchasing has increased, creating an opportunity for the county to explore cooperative purchasing. “Being a part of a cooperative purchasing program like U.S. Communities, we realize substantial cost savings when we pool our purchasing powers,” Reinbold says. “It is good business practice and common sense in the world of crunched budgets and trying to do more with less.”
For local government purchasers in the early stages of instituting sustainable purchasing programs, Reinbold says, “Pick low-lying fruit first. Don’t try to take on the world all at once. Going green is a never-ending, fluid process. You are always trying to do better over time with the resources you have to work with. When you understand this, environmentally preferable purchasing becomes a lot easier.”
As Locke and Reinbold have found, creating partnerships and sharing information is key to the success of sustainable purchasing programs. Adapting to green purchasing policies and building a sustainable purchasing portfolio is not a task that can be done all at once, but is an exercise made easier and more effective when it is done cooperatively.
Connie Kuranko is the director of the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based U.S. Communities Going Green Program.