Sustainable Purchasing

Government agencies’ considerable buying power can help communities model sustainable consumption.

Government agencies have the opportunity to drive more sustainable product choices through their significant buying power in the marketplace. The World Trade Organization[1] estimates that government procurement averages between 10–15% of GDP. Through their purchasing activities and policies, cities can set standards and criteria for what goods and services they buy, creating demand for more sustainable options.

So-called “sustainable purchasing” practices are becoming more common for cities as well as other institutional purchasers. This approach to procurement seeks to improve the environmental, social, and economic performance within the city’s supply chains, across the full life cycle of goods and services.

A number of very useful resources have emerged to provide guidance and model specifications including such examples as:

Sustainable Procurement Playbook: released by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) in 2016, this resource provides a comprehensive review of city procurement practices and recommendations for developing a sustainable purchasing program. USDN member cities have used this in conjunction with a sustainable purchasing policy template to enhance the sustainability of their purchasing programs and policies.

Climate Friendly Purchasing Toolkit: developed by the West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum, the toolkit focuses on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with government purchasing, which typically total 35–55% of a city’s total operational emissions. The toolkit provides an overview of supply chain emissions inventory methodology and trends to assist governments in targeting their most carbon-intensive purchasing activities. Specific guidance is available for high-carbon product/service categories such as construction, food, diesel fuels, IT equipment, carpet and flooring and professional services.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

This is a unique opportunity for local governments to exercise direct control over the impacts of their decisions. They can model the principles of sustainable consumption by developing transparent, intentional procurement processes and standards that can then be shared with other institutional partners in the community (universities, hospitals, schools, etc.), facilitating broader adoption. Utilizing tools that operationalize a life-cycle approach means purchasing staff can go beyond the typical emphasis on recyclability or end-of-life management, and drive design and production changes further upstream in the supply chain. Engaging in climate-friendly purchasing allows cities to highlight the role of consumption in reaching climate action goals.

Potential City Roles

  • Promote—share best practices and results in professional networks and among local peers
  • Fund—direct city funds to the purchase of preferable goods and services
  • Support—provide guidance and training to enable staff in all departments to adopt new practices
  • Make minor policy adjustments—use guidance and other tools to embed sustainable procurement practice in solicitations, contract awards and other procurement processes
  • Convene—create local roundtables or purchasing consortia with other institutional partners
  • Educate/outreach—highlight sustainable purchasing practices for the public through the budget approval process and other fiscal reporting
  • Develop plans—create a sustainable purchasing policy
  • Demonstrate—demonstrate best practices internally and with external partners
  • Develop programs/services—train staff and vendors in sustainable purchasing policy and practice

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

The procurement process involves some subjectivity even when guided by policy and criteria. Cities should provide clear criteria for ranking vendors and products/services and monitor for consistency in how they are applied. In the area of product packaging, particularly for food and food service ware, attributes such as recycled content, recyclable, bio-based and compostable have been commonly used as proxies for sustainable performance. Recent research[2] by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality suggests that these are not necessarily reliable measures and should only be used in combination with other criteria or product considerations.

Other potential barriers include 1) budget limitations and price premiums for sustainable alternatives 2) insufficient product information and 3) availability of alternatives. A variety of product certification programs or registries serve as a source of product ratings and vendor information for public procurement. Local governments may also have access to larger state-level procurement contracts that have been developed for certain products or services. These can provide a greater range of options and prices through aggregating orders across multiple agencies.

Further Resources

Related Purchasing Initiatives

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