Sustainable purchasing is an effort to buy greener, healthier, and more sustainable products from greener, more sustainable companies. It is based on the simple concept that every single purchase has hidden human health, environmental, and social impacts and that it is possible to reduce adverse impacts by buying better products.
The hidden impacts occur throughout a product’s supply chain: from the point raw materials are scraped out of or harvested from the earth, to the preparation of the raw materials, the manufacturing processes, the packaging, use and ultimate disposal of the product, including all of the transportation requirements throughout the lifecycle. The cumulative total of the impacts defines the product’s sustainability footprint.
Sustainable purchasing means buying products with improved sustainability footprints that also meet price, performance and quality requirements.
At the consumer level, sustainable purchasing involves shopping for products with specific environmental or social benefits, particularly those products that have been certified to environmental leadership standards.
Some of the environmental attributes of most interest to consumers include recycled-content, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, biodegradability and safer materials.
Consumers rely on various environmental labels to help them identify the greener, healthier products, including:
- ECOLOGO: Certifies products meeting environmental leadership standards based on multiple environmental considerations and requires third-party auditing. It covers products such as cleaning chemicals, mobile phones, tissue and copy paper, paint, toys and more.
- Energy Star: Identifies the most energy efficient products as defined by the U.S. federal government and is now backed by independent third-party testing.
- EPEAT: Lists computers, printers, monitors, and televisions meeting consensus-based environmental standards. Some of the listed products have been independently certified as meeting the relevant standards by organizations like UL Environment.
- Fair Trade: Covers agricultural-based products like fruits and vegetables, cocoa, coffee, sugar, natural apparel and other products. The label indicates, as certified by Fair Trade auditors, that the farmers and other workers are paid a fair price and enjoy safe working conditions.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Recognizes forest products, including lumber, paper, and furniture made from wood that has been harvested in a more sustainable manner based on certification to the FSC standard.
- GREENGUARD: Certifies products based on independent laboratory tests that meet tough indoor air quality requirements to minimize indoor air pollution from chemical product emissions. It covers products like carpets, paints, baby cribs, mattresses, furniture, electronics and cleaning products.
Professional purchasing tools
Consumers are not the only ones interested in buying greener, healthier products. Many organizations including large and small companies, governments, colleges and universities and healthcare organizations are also looking to make more sustainable choices.
For many of these organizations, responsible purchasing is more than “doing the right thing.” Green purchasing priorities are frequently connected with specific business objectives like reducing operational costs by buying more energy or water efficient equipment, more fuel efficient vehicles, and reducing packaging waste from suppliers.
Responsible purchasing can also be connected with specific corporate environmental and social commitments such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing supplier diversity or buying from local businesses.
In addition to the environmental labels used by consumers, professional purchasers have additional tools to facilitate responsible purchasing. One important tool for many purchasers is the formal sustainability purchasing policies organizations use to publicly declare their intent.
A few examples of public sustainable purchasing commitments include:
- A series of Presidential Executive Orders, issued by every president since President George H.W. Bush first required the federal government to buy recycled content products in 1991, requires federal government purchasers to buy greener products. The most recent Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama requires 95 percent of government purchases meet environmental requirements.
- Numerous state and local governments have similar green purchasing policies.
- Private sector companies like McDonald’s have been making green purchasing commitments since its 1990 commitment to buy recycled content products. Its green purchasing commitments continue today with pledges to buy more sustainable beef, coffee, palm oil and fish.
- Other companies such as Patagonia, Starbucks and Walmart also have been working to reduce their sustainability footprints through better purchasing.
- Colleges and universities including American University, Arizona State University, Duke University, Harvard University and others are making similar commitments.
- A group of green purchasing leaders recently launched the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, which includes numerous companies promoting greener purchasing. The group is developing tools and resources to make sustainable purchasing easier.
In addition to public commitments and environmental labels to facilitate their sustainable purchasing practices, professional purchasers also rely on environmental product declarations.
An environmental product declaration (EPD) is a standardized reporting format for validated sustainability data. It is a report analogous to the nutrition label on a box of cereal. It provides purchasers with key metrics such as the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a product or the water intensity of the manufacturing process. It can also include information on human health and social impacts.
While too complicated for the typical consumer, EPDs are being used by professional purchasers to help organizations measure and improve their sustainability footprints.
Caveat emptor viridis (Translation: Let the green buyer beware)
Greenwashing, making false or misleading environmental claims about a product, service or company, continues to be a challenge for people trying to buy greener products.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces U.S. truth-in-advertising law based on its recently revised Green Guides, continues to identify companies making misleading environmental claims.
Recent FTC cases include:
- A plastic lumber company that overstated the recycled-content percentage of its products.
- A plastics company making misleading and unsubstantiated claims about the biodegradability of its products.
- A diaper company deceiving consumers about the compostability, biodegradability, and other environmental features of its products.
Anyone interested in buying greener, more sustainable products should look for independent, third-party proof from well-known and well-respected organizations for any environmental or human health claim.
A variety of tools exist to make sustainable purchasing easier for individual consumers and large organizations. They make it possible to leverage individual purchasing decisions into a powerful economic force that can build a better world.
And it is working.
Companies chasing profits from sustainability-minded customers are now competing to improve their own sustainability and to make more sustainable products. Buying greener, healthier, more sustainable products is one way we can all improve our own lives while contributing to the greater good.
Image courtesy of UL Environment