Survey Reveals Gaps in Green Purchasing Plans

When Portland Community College (PCC) threw its annual Awards Banquet, the student association did its best to ensure that the party would be green, choosing the venue, caterers, and even the awards themselves– made of recycled glass– with an eye towards sustainability. After much consideration, the event took place at a forestry center which was reachable by public transit and that composts its food scraps, and the caterer was chosen for its use of local food.

The banquet was only one part of a campus-wide initiative to spend the school’s dollars in greener ways and reduce its carbon footprint. PCC also uses 100% recycled paper for all of its printing, reuses as much paper as possible, and buys dishware that is either reusable, recycled or compostable.

A new survey released by the National Association of Educational Procurement notes that such efforts are underway at many colleges and universities in the US. According to representatives from more than a hundred schools that responded, institutionalized green purchasing plans are on the rise, with 66 schools reporting some kind of green procurement measure on campus.

Brian Yeoman, director of sustainable leadership for the National Association of Education Procurement, says he believes that number is going to climb rapidly. Nearly half of the surveyed schools indicated that they plan to institute a green purchasing policy in the next year.

“When I look at the data, it says we are currently at the tipping point,” says Yeoman. “There are a lot of people on the sidelines that have been looking at this notion for an extended period of time, and the survey gave them a chance to talk about their expectations for the future. There’s a tremendously significant number of people that intend to implement the procedures of the survey in the next 12 months.”

Schools that have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), or are members of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), were most likely to have implemented green purchasing policies, usually as part of a broader, campus-wide climate action plan. Half of the respondents said that they have a climate action plan in place or are currently developing one, though only 24% have formal green procurement policies in place to support them.

The difficulty in green purchasing, says Yeoman, is twofold. First, he says, the belief that green purchasing costs more is a powerful and persistent one. “What the survey did was clearly debunk that myth, because it demonstrates that those who have the policies in place have not found this is a problem,” he says. Portland Community College reports that the budget impact for its 100% recycled paper policy was negligible, due in part to conservation efforts such as double-sided printing.

The second hurdle, Yeoman says, is outdated data systems. Only 30% of respondents claimed to have the ability to promote green certified suppliers and more than 60% said they have no way to determine how much is spent on environmentally friendly products. “It remains difficult to identify green products and vendors in the system, so bringing them to campus is difficult,” says Yeoman. “If you want to buy 30% recycled paper, most of the data systems on a college campus will not allow you to see that paper any differently than regular paper, and find which vendors sell it.”

Even on campuses with policies in place, enforcement can be difficult. Of the 53% of schools that reported having recycled products policies, little more than half are able to actively enforce them. Only 14% of schools have a dedicated green purchasing coordinator or manager, according to NWF’s Campus Environment 2008 report.

Resources exist to help schools looking to implement these policies. Certification systems, such as Energy Star, Green Seal, and FSC-certified can offer a measure of accountability, and NAEP acts as a publishing house with case studies, tools, and a detailed “roadmap” of green purchasing policies.

When it comes to starting a green purchasing program, “It’s almost a demonstration of faith in the manner of Indiana Jones,” says Yeoman. “It’s like walking across the chasm, it’s a matter of taking the first step.”

Published: June 30, 2009