The Feds Step Up
New activity within the federal government is under way to address the need for greater green clarity. Two recent Congressional Research Service reports, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-sponsored public “listening session,” and a renewed focus by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) all signal a greater federal government interest in green purchasing following the October 2009 Executive Order signed by President Obama that includes green purchasing requirements.
Also, as this article goes to press, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is on the verge of releasing its revised FTC Green Guides advising companies how to make acceptable environmental marketing claims.
New federal government activity
The October 2009 Executive Order signed by President Obama continues to ripple through the federal government purchasing community and the broader world of green purchasing. Among other requirements, Executive Order 13154 requires that 95 percent of the $500 billion in annual federal purchasing contracts meet sustainability criteria. This requirement has focused considerable attention on the federal purchasing process, including increased attention from EPA, GSA and members of Congress.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA has been soliciting opinions about the role EPA should play in the development, manufacture, designation and use of green and sustainable products. At press time, EPA was planning a “listening session” to be held on September 24.
Some of the topics to be addressed at the listening session include EPA’s role in:
- Assembling environmental information and databases
- Setting product sustainability priorities
- Evaluating products across their entire lifecycle
- Defining criteria for more sustainable products
- Generating eco-labels and standards
- Verifying products meet green standards
- Measuring results
U.S. General Services Administration
GSA is also focusing on improvements to its process for identifying greener products and services. It is currently reviewing, for example, how to identify legitimate environmental standards and labels that can help federal purchasers meet the Executive Order requirements. The updated GSA approach will determine what type of environmental information is most accessible to federal government purchasers using the GSA schedules.
It is clear that members of Congress have gotten quite interested in green purchasing issues as a way of creating “green economy” jobs that address both environmental and economic needs. Members of the 111th Congress (January 2009ultJanuary 2011) have already introduced, but not yet passed, legislation to allow state and local governments to use Federal Supply Schedules to buy “environmentally preferable ‘green'” products, to give preference to “sustainable” products in select federal procurements, and to require specific renewable energy and energy-efficiency building requirements.
Two recent Congressional Research Service reports have been published in response to Congressional inquiries about green procurement. Together, the reports address a number of the challenges delaying broader adoption of green purchasing strategies, highlight efforts to make it easier to buy green, describe current legislative support for green purchasing and identify outstanding issues that Congress might choose to address.
The reports identify a number of well-known challenges to green procurement including:
- Inadequate information on the environmental impacts and benefits of products and services
- Lack of common standards defining “green”
- Real and perceived cost barriers to buying greener products
- Market and technical uncertainties about the benefits of buying green.
The reports also emphasize the importance of incorporating a broad range of environmental considerations from throughout a product’s life cycle (from the raw materials used to make the product, the manufacturing process, packaging and distribution, use of the product or service and ultimate disposal issues) rather than focusing on any single environmental issue such as recycled content or energy efficiency.
One of the reports details the current legislative support for and challenges to increasing green federal government purchasing. It highlights specific federal statutes requiring or supporting green purchasing and reveals opportunities where greater legislative clarity would be helpful.
Ultimately, both reports highlight a number of issues for Congress to consider before determining whether legislative remedies might be appropriate. The ultimate questions are what role, if any, Congress should play in further facilitating green purchasing and whether the existing players in the green product and service world — government purchasers, federal agencies like EPA, GSA, and FTC, the Sustainability Consortium of retailers and suppliers, and the existing environmental labeling players — can resolve the various challenges to green purchasing in a timely manner on their own.
New FTC guidance
As this article goes to press, the FTC is likely to release its revised Green Guides, which tell manufacturers, marketers and purchasers how to identify legitimate and meaningful environmental claims. While the content of the guides was unknown at press time, several recent articles citing industry experts suggested one of the key outcomes from the revisions would be to clean up the cluttered environmental labeling space by clarifying the rules for legitimate environmental certification.
According to one source, the revised rules could make it impossible for many of the less meaningful environmental labels to survive by requiring labels to be transparent about their standards, standard-setting processes, and verification or certification methodologies. As a result, the FTC guides could significantly decrease the more than 300 questionable environmental labels and make it easier to identify legitimate environmental standard-setting, certification and labeling organizations.
While government purchasers already routinely ask suppliers to provide proof that their products and services meet publicly available environmental leadership standards, the FTC action could make it easier for the average consumer to identify legitimately greener products.
The revised FTC Green Guides will be available on the FTC website at: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/reporter/greengds.shtm
Making “green” easier
As government purchasers have long known, green purchasing can be challenging. Many of the most significant challenges are due to a lack of consistent green standards, including competing standards and recommendations from the federal government. Fortunately, a variety of efforts are under way to address these challenges.
Government purchasers are uniquely positioned to influence the future of the green marketplace. By continuing to seek more environmentally preferable products and services from more sustainable companies, government purchasers provide strong incentives for someone — whether it is Congress or other actors in the marketplace — to make it easier for everyone to buy green.
A new partnership in green labeling
TerraChoice, managers of the EcoLogo environmental standard-setting, certification, and labeling program, has joined forces with Underwriters Laboratory Environment (UL Environment), a wholly owned subsidiary of Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
On August 31, TerraChoice and UL Environment announced a new partnership as part of the UL global network.
UL has been developing safety standards since 1894, and government purchasers and other supply chain managers have routinely required UL safety certification in their purchasing specifications for decades. As the definition of product safety has expanded to include environmental and sustainability considerations, UL responded and launched UL Environment in early 2009 as a wholly owned UL subsidiary. UL Environment now supports the growth and development of sustainable products, services and organizations in the global marketplace through standards development, educational services and independent third-party assessment and certification.
While not as recognized globally as the UL certification mark, the EcoLogo Program has been certifying North American products and services and meeting tough EcoLogo environmental leadership standards since 1988. Frequently cited by government purchasers and others seeking greener products, EcoLogo has certified more than 7,000 products in 80 categories based on publicly available standards developed in an open, consensus-based process. EcoLogo is in the process of revising several standards, including its popular green cleaning product standard, and developing new standards such as an EcoLogo standard for greener toys.
UL Environment also is in the process of developing several green certifications, including standards for green building materials and a sustainability certification for companies. As a result of the new partnership with TerraChoice, UL Environment will begin certifying products to the existing EcoLogo standards.
About the Author
Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing issues for 17 years. He is market development director for UL Environment. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or in Reading, PA, at 610-779-3770.