Government Purchasing: Sustainability’s Best-Kept Secret?

By Mary Hoff

Archimedes once observed that with a long enough lever he could move the world. In the case of moving the world to a more sustainable place, government purchasing could be just what he would have ordered.

“Government is the largest buyer of goods across the globe,” Arizona State University Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative co-founder Nicole Darnall told an international audience during a Security and Sustainability Forum webinar April 22. That means, she said, that government purchasing can play a huge role in advancing sustainability around the world.

The webinar, “Purchasing Power: How government can lead the way to a more sustainable and equitable economy,” also included Sarah O’Brien, CEO of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC), and Adina Torberntsson, procurement analyst with the  General Services Administration (GSA).

According to Darnall, product use is “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to government purchasing’s role in advancing sustainability. “The real impact is in the supply chain,” she said — noting that government purchases have a carbon footprint nine times that of buildings and vehicle fleets.

Sustainable purchasing makes a difference in several ways, Darnall said. It encourages production of sustainable products. It influences supply chains. And it redirects consumer markets. And it can save money, too: She noted that in Phoenix, an initiative to replace conventional streetlight bulbs with LEDs is expected to save the city $22 million over the next 15 years.

It’s estimated that fewer than one-third of U.S. cities have a sustainable purchasing plan. Those that do and are finding success, Darnall said, have some key factors in common: complementary policies and practices, access to information, strong leadership, a culture of innovation, and collaborative vendors.

O’Brien echoed the importance of purchasing in making progress toward sustainability. “Every procurement is also a vote for the world we want to create,” she told webinar attendees. In particular, she said, public sector sustainable procurement offers five big benefits: It achieves environmental policy commitments. It boosts efficiency and lowers costs. It provides social benefits related to alleviating poverty and unemployment. It provides support for sustainable businesses. And it can boost supply chain resilience.

O’Brien also noted that successful sustainable procurement initiatives tend to share four key characteristics. First, they are strategic programs, not random acts of sustainability. Second, they involve prioritizing biggest opportunities for impact. Third, they are collaborative. And fourth, they reward success.

She offered SPLC as a source of ideas and best practices gathered from those who have found success. “Copying and pasting is the most effective strategy we have in this movement,” she said, “and I encourage you all to use it shamelessly.”

Torberntsson followed with insights she’s gained in her work with the GSA. With $586 billion in contracts in FY19 alone, she noted, the federal government can play a big role in boosting sustainability through its purchasing practices. A number of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Agriculture are involved in setting sustainable procurement standards, and the Federal Trade Commission offers Green Guides to help others avoid problems such as greenwashing.

“This is really an exciting time for acquisition,” she said. “With the executive orders that have come out, I’m very excited to be part of it.”

O’Brien summarized the overarching sentiment during the Q&A session at the end of the webinar.

“Now is the moment for sustainable procurement to really come into its power,” she said. “The impact on the supply chain is huge, and we have the opportunity. We have the tools we need to build consistency and best practices.”

Like to learn more? Watch the video and learn more about the presenters here.

The Security and Sustainability Forum convenes global experts in free educational webinars to address the threats to society from climate change and other disruptions to Earth and human systems. Learn more, view more than 200 webinar recordings, and sign up to receive notification of future webinars here.

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