Green Purchasing

Are We Green Yet?

green purchasing

PHOTO © ROMOLO TAVANI

Buying green is old news. Around since the mid-1990s, the concept yielded a thick catalog of eco-rated products and services to choose from. Granted, many of these products oversold their efficacy or environmental bona fides to jump on a lucrative bandwagon, but greenwashing is not the issue it used to be. Today credible certifications back up product claims and years of user experience quantify them anecdotally.

As it progresses, the green procurement movement is expanding beyond a suite of sustainable products to a more holistic approach. Leading-edge green procurement practitioners examine the entire ecosystem — production, supply chains, consumption and disposal — in an effort to change behaviors, shrink carbon footprints, reign in pollutants and generate less waste.

Many major corporations are committed to green procurement. Some municipalities, cities and states are on board, too. So where is green procurement on college campuses today? Is it still a nice-to-have-subset of a school’s total spend? Or more of that holistic, baked-in approach?

“It’s a real mixed bag,” explains Jeremy Schwartz, director of cooperative contracts and procurement, National Joint Powers Alliance. He sees green procurement as well beyond the fad stage. The real barrier, in his mind, is budget constraints.

“It seems like green procurement is a desire with financial limitation,” Schwartz muses. “While some schools might budget more towards it, when it comes down to sustainable procurement versus price-based procurement there’s still too many examples where the green option costs more. And that limits growth.”

Brian Yeoman, director of sustainable leadership, National Association of Educational Procurement (NAEP), agrees that price is a common battle cry heard on many campuses. Yet data he gathers from the yearly Green Procurement Survey Report tells an emerging story. “For bigger schools the real problem is data management systems that identify green vendors, goods and services,” he says.

Yeoman sees other steady, positive movement. He points to data that shows a growing commitment to and high prioritization of green procurement. The data also signals that green procurement has moved to the implementation stage.

Where It’s Working

Power Purchase Agreements are an emerging success story for green purchasing. “Almost nobody was using PPAs to buy renewable power in 2009 or 2010,” says Julian Dautremont-Smith, director of programs, AASHE. “Now over 100 institutions have entered into long-term contracts for green power using this mechanism, reducing risk from volatility in energy prices and often saving money in the process too.”

PPAs lock in a fixed rate for renewable energy from a developer. The agreement doesn’t necessarily save money, but a fixed rate removes price uncertainty while making a real dent in carbon emissions. “Hundreds of schools committed to carbon neutrality and the low-hanging fruit, like replacing incandescent bulbs with LED lights, has been picked,” says Dautremont-Smith. “PPAs let schools transition to renewable energy in a cost-effective way.”

For schools committed to buying green products, certifications help justify the spend. EPEAT rates electronic equipment and Green Seal does the same for goods like paper, cleaning products and construction materials. “Products with ‘Fair Trade’ certification have done well on college campuses, too,” says Dautremont-Smith. The same cannot be said for “organic,” however.

Where It’s Lagging

Sorting through certifications or negotiating a PPA takes enough time and money to keep resource-strapped schools out of the game. To complicate matters, department secretaries are often charged with purchasing. Expecting them to wade through research and certifications on top of their other duties is unrealistic. “In ‘town and gown’ places the order is often passed off to a local company because a cousin works there,” says Yeoman.

And then there’s this: at a time when everything is political, Yeoman reports that his survey often come back with responses that question the validity of green procurement. “We will get freehand written responses that say, ‘Green purchasing and certification are more of the liberal agenda. We don’t use them and never will.’”

Where It’s Going

Survey trolls aside, buy-in to green procurement continues and evolves. The latest on the green front involves consolidating buying power across sectors and quantifying all angles.

“Right now, there isn’t a universal definition of green spend,” says Sam Hummel, CEO, Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and recognize purchasing leadership that accelerates the transition to a prosperous and sustainable future. The organization is creating a rigorous way to define and quantify that spend in a holistic way. Instead of comparing products, the strategic approach identifies social and environmental impacts in the supply chain, prioritizes and executes actions and then benchmarks them.

“Product substitutions is just one solution strategy,” Hummel says. He then ticks off the others: “There’s demand reduction, behavior change, process change, supplier engagement, outsourcing and insourcing.”

As an example, Hummel points to the City of Alameda, CA. Their paper purchases were up, but the recycled content of that paper was not. Switching to 100 percent recycled content would add a 20 percent premium — a whopping $100,000 — to the bill.

Instead of spiking the idea, the City gathered stakeholders to identify who uses paper and why. They then implemented behavior changing strategies that reduced paper use by 20 percent and aggregated procurement to one vendor across all departments. The strategic sourcing approach allowed Alameda to use 20 percent less paper overall and the paper they do use has 100 percent recycled content.

Today SPLC counts 200 members across all sectors. Twenty of them are higher education institutions. Hummel feels that this alignment of purchasing power across business, government and education will create a big and verifiable impact. Publishing it through an Application Programming Interface will allow results to be incorporated into software multiplying the effect.

And it will perhaps get procurement professionals a seat at the “big table.” A long-held dream for NAEP’s Yeoman, a green approach can upgrade the procurement departments’ standing at schools.

“You can’t ask faculty to come up with money-saving ideas,” he says. “But procurement professionals can find ways to save and still be sustainable.” That sustainability can also be a great recruitment tool for students, faculty and staff.

For Hummel, it’s bigger than the dollars. “For us it’s about stewarding the marketplace and influencing the supply chain.”

But if you can eliminate waste, inefficiency, harm and risk it seems like saving money will come naturally.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

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