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Greening Your Business

Implementing a green purchasing program is a straight forward and quantifiable strategy for companies looking to reduce their environmental impact.

By Kim Matsoukas, LEED AP


Implementing a green purchasing program is a straight forward and quantifiable strategy for companies looking to reduce their environmental impact.

The sustainability movement has evolved from promoting basic practices like recycling and carpooling into something much larger. Fortunately, many companies are now thinking about the bigger picture, which means taking a holistic approach to addressing their environmental footprint by greening their supply chains. After all, every product or raw material we purchase has an associated environmental impact. This is especially true for building materials. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 13 percent to 18 percent of a building's carbon footprint comes from the embodied carbon in the materials.

Greening your company's supply chain has benefits beyond just lowering the environmental footprint of your own purchases. Voting with our dollars and considering sustainability in purchasing decisions, along with price, aesthetic, quality and service, sends a message to the market that sustainability is valuable. This increases demand for sustainable businesses and products. Increased demand for green products is what influences companies to change their business practices and develop greener products.

Green products are highly beneficial to the environment and the market; but a green purchasing program also has many direct benefits to the companies that implement them. First and foremost, green purchasing policies can help companies save money. While it's true that some green products may cost more initially, that's not always the case. Sometimes spending a little more upfront can save money in the long run. For example, Bentley Prince Street found that switching its cleaning products to greener options costs more per package than the traditional products it had been using; however, the cleaning staff had to use less of the new green cleaning product because it was more concentrated, which saved on the number of shipments that were needed each year.

In addition, BPS consolidated the number of products used from more than a dozen to three, which also saved money. In total, the company found that switching to a greener option saved more than $5,000 per year.

Cost savings aside, a green purchasing program can benefit associates. Improving indoor air quality by purchasing low-emitting products has been shown to increase productivity and lower illness rates for workers. When part of a comprehensive sustainability program, a green purchasing program can bolster the engagement and innovation of associates. (This increased level of engagement can extend to the marketing of your product and company.)

Once your company has decided to create a green purchasing program, it is important to think carefully about the design of the program (this will help you enormously during the implementation phase). The most important part of the design process is engaging stakeholders within your company and forming a green team or committee. The committee should include both those who are involved in purchasing decisions, as well as those who are interested in sustainability. Maintenance, housekeeping, IT and any other departments that may be affected should also be part of the committee.

The first step of the green purchasing team should be to define what constitutes a "green" or environmentally preferable product. This will vary greatly depending on the type of products or services your company provides. For example, for general office supplies, equipment and some building products, the EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPG) or LEED for Operations and Maintenance guidelines are a good place to start. (See p. 66 to learn about WHR Architects' Product Sustainability Rating System.)

Whether your team decides to adopt existing green purchasing guidelines or to create your own, it's important that everyone on the committee understands the different aspects of sustainability and how they affect a product's life-cycle environmental impact. The volume of information on this subject can be overwhelming, so it may be a good idea to form sub-committees that can be organized around sustainability criteria like recycled content and environmental certifications. Another option is to focus the guidelines around different product categories like durable goods and office supplies. Having experts on different subjects, or product categories, will assist the committee in crafting a program that is holistic and meaningful.

Once the committee defines a green product, the next step is to measure the company's baseline. The baseline calculation should cover a long enough time period to give the committee an accurate idea of the company's green purchasing performance. This time frame will vary depending on the company, but six months to a year should provide enough information to create an accurate baseline. The baseline will tell you what green products you are already purchasing and which areas need improvement. For example, your company may already be purchasing recycled paper and office products but may not be purchasing low VOC paints.

Beyond just giving a picture of current performance, the baseline calculation can be used to create the goals of the green purchasing program. Goals should be difficult, but attainable. If the goals of the program are too difficult, you may encounter push back from associates and it will be hard to build momentum. On the other hand, if they are too easy, some low hanging fruit may be left on the table.

Best practices and resources to help you:

The next step in creating a green purchasing program is to develop an environmentally preferable purchasing policy. This policy should take into account the goals of the purchasing program and create criteria that purchases must meet. The policy can be binding and create vendor requirements or purchasing preferences. For example, a company can require that all paper purchased contain a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. Alternatively, the policy could state that paper with recycled content be purchased whenever possible. Whether the criteria are mandatory or just preferred should depend on the availability and cost of the environmentally preferable options. Generally, products like paper with recycled content and low VOC paints are readily available and don't cost more than the traditional option. For some environmentally preferable products, however, there may be a large cost differential.

Finally, the green committee should implement a tracking system to help track the success of the green purchasing program. Key questions to ask are: Who will track the progress? And, how will the information be collected? The answers to these questions will depend on the company, but generally it is best to assign a single point of contact to collect the information on the program. If the company already has a robust purchasing system, progress can probably be tracked using monthly reports. In any case, the tracking system should be flexible and easy enough that it doesn't add a lot of extra work to purchasing staff. This tracking system should be used to communicate the progress of the program back to the green committee and the company at large. The green committee should continue to meet on a regular basis in order to address any issues that may arise, and to monitor progress and set new goals.

The process of greening a company's supply chain may seem overwhelming and arduous. But, with a dedicated and enthusiastic group, the benefits realized by creating a robust green purchasing program will far outweigh the costs.

Kim Matsoukas, LEED AP, is sustainability manager at Bentley Prince Street where she oversees the company's innovative and extensive green initiatives, including Cool Carpet, ReEntry 2.0 and Mission Zero. She can be reached at