Tips to Help Institutions Green Their Purchases

(A supplemental resource for Worldwatch Paper 166, Purchasing Power: Harnessing Institutional Procurement for People and the Planet)

Around the world, forward-thinking institutions are changing their purchasing habits to incorporate environmental concerns into all stages of their procurements. How are they doing this? Listed below are some tips and suggestions to help institutions and purchasers start buying more responsibly.

  • Win high-level support. An important way to broaden awareness of green purchasing is to the support of a high-level individual who can champion the practice, whether a top manager at a company or a local politician. Starting a program can also be easier if an institution is already committed to some degree of environmental responsibility, such as implementing an environmental management system.
  • Establish a clear policy, law, or practice that will institutionalize green purchasing and set measurable goals and targets that can be easily enforced. Copenhagen's strategy, which went into effect in 1998, specified that within two years all office supplies had to be PVC-free, all photocopiers had to use 100 percent recycled paper, all printers had to use double-sided printing, and all toner cartridges had to be reused.
  • Have a clear focus and start small. Many institutions have found it easiest to start green purchasing programs off with a clear focus and a limited scope. The city of Santa Monica, California, kicked off its green purchasing effort in 1994 with less-toxic cleaning products because a large body of knowledge about product alternatives already existed. Without doing too much additional research, buyers were able to replace traditional cleaners with less-toxic options in 15 of 17 product categories, saving 5 percent on annual costs and avoiding the purchase of 1.5 tons of hazardous materials per year.
  • Engage all stakeholders. Green buying is more likely to occur if all the individuals involved—purchasers, managers, suppliers, and end-users of the products or services—understand its importance and are included in the process. This not only encourages greater buy-in, but also helps ensure that the purchased goods meet user needs and the desired environmental and/or social ends. The state of Vorarlberg, Austria, surveyed the needs, activities, and expectations of purchasers from different municipalities and used these insights to develop green procurement guidelines and an ‘eco-guide' that is constantly reevaluated to stay relevant.
  • Train purchasers. Some institutions have developed detailed questionnaires that guide purchasers through the buying process, asking them to consider the various impacts of products or to rate a supplier environmental soundness. The city of G