(42) Sustainability


Sustainability - Wikipedia


Purchasing projects

In addition to setting up policies and systems, purchasing departments also undertake specific improvement projects, often in collaboration with other departments or groups.

Some of the more common initiatives are described below.

Conduct a waste or purchasing audit

Trawling through dumpsters/skips is not just a way for the poorest members of our society to make ends meet; it’s also a great way to learn about where your money is going. Of course, if you’re smart, you divert the waste before it ends up in the dumpster and do a representative sampling, but it’s still a messy process. However, as you sort the detritus into categories – food, paper, recyclable metals, glass, etc. – you will gain some interesting insights.

At the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, a waste audit uncovered that almost 40 percent of their waste was food, of which a third was liquids (watery soft drinks and ice). Why they wondered, are we paying to haul water away when we could just pour it down the drain? As a stop-gap solution, they marked one of their bins ‘liquids only’, which instantly reduced their waste by 5 percent. Then they started to think about their outdoor bins. Portland is famous for its rain, yet the bins were designed in such a way that rainwater got into them. So they were also hauling off rainwater.

This analysis led them to make more far-reaching changes. They now divert 3-4 tons of food waste into a worm bin that doubles as an exhibit to teach visitors how to follow their example. The exhibit designers are also focusing on reducing the waste associated with exhibit construction. The goal is for 80 percent of each exhibit to be either made from recycled materials or be recyclable/reusable. They have discovered three main ways to make an exhibit sustainable:

1 Design exhibit components so that they are easily updated – content can be changed without changing the structure.

2 Make exhibit components standard, allowing interchangeability of parts.

3 Choose construction methods and materials that can be recycled at the end of life of the exhibit.

The focus of the design will be at the end of life of the exhibit. The question of construction methods is relatively simple to address – bolting bits together makes it easier to take them apart at the end of the exhibit’s life than glueing them. Material choices will be made based on composition, durability and how the manufacture’s factory profile rates with regard to environmentally friendly practices.

Usually, doing a waste audit is a task for the facilities department (you’ll be relieved to know), but a purchasing employee should also participate. It’s at that point that you’ll get a sense of how much of what you are buying is going straight into the skip. At Portland State University, they worked out that they were buying and throwing out 1400 paper cups a day. Doing a purchasing audit in conjunction with a waste audit can be revealing.

Create a reliable market for a targeted product

Sometimes the materials you would prefer to use aren’t available in reliable quantities (eg organic cotton or organic hops) or production is at such a low level that the costs are prohibitively expensive (eg kenaf paper). In these situations, the industrial infrastructure is not yet there to track the chain of custody. The only way to solve this problem is to partner those in the industry; roll up your sleeves and figure it out collaboratively. Long-term purchasing commitments build confidence in potential suppliers that making sustainable investments pays off. Government plays a particularly important role in using purchasing as a market driver. Short-term incentives (tax credits, deductions, rebates, etc.) can offset the additional cost of innovative new products until the market is large enough to create production efficiencies. For example, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance set up a system of rebates for buyers and dealers to offset the cost of front-loading washing machines, which used a fraction of the water and energy of traditional models. Initially, these front-loaders sold at a premium over traditional, inefficient ones, in part because there were no US manufacturing plants making them. By offsetting that cost premium, it made it easy for customers to choose the greener option. ‘The market share of these machines has increased from a few percentage points at the beginning of the programme to over 12 percent after the first 18 months,’ said Margaret Gardner, executive director of the Alliance. ‘Our consumer and dealer surveys have also demonstrated acceptance of these machines by the market.’ In the past, the lack of domestically produced front-loaders held back consumer purchases of the more efficient machines. Within two years, several major manufacturers including Frigidaire, Maytag and Amana introduced resource-saving models, making it possible to phase out the incentives.

Nike and Patagonia teamed up to create a market for organic cotton. Cotton is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s use of insecticides, which pollute streams and make workers sick. The problem for Nike was that there was an insufficient supply of the organic alternative – they could buy up the entire global harvest and still not have enough

for their T-shirts and other clothing – so they instead made long-term commitments to increase the percentage of organic cotton in their clothing over time. They are now the largest US buyer of organic cotton – in 2000 $182 million or 20.9 percent of Nike’s US net revenues of $868 million were generated by sales of organic cotton-blended products (T-shirts, sweatshirts and fleece) sold in the US. Currently these products are 5.7 percent organic cotton, according to Heidi Holt, global environmental director for Nike’s clothing division, and the company has a goal of a minimum of 3 percent organic cotton in all of its cotton clothing by 2010 and plans to launch a 100 percent organic cotton women’s line in the US.

Creating a market for environmentally or socially preferable products doesn’t always have to cost more, at least not for long. Portland, Oregon architectural firm Yost Gruba Hall made a commitment to pay more for recycled paper; within a year their vendor was able to lower the price to that of traditional products, at least in part because YGH helped to establish the demand.

Research sustainable alternatives for a specific function or product

Unfortunately, in the real world, what is better is not always obvious. Rarely is there a perfect answer. So deciding whether to choose product A or B is often a matter of weighing priorities. One product comes from farther away but provides employment to indigent women in Bangladesh. One flooring material is filled with recycled plastic but is not recyclable at the end of its useful life while the alternative is wood but not from a sustainable source. The #5 plastic container is not easily recycled but is lighter so it saves on fuel. How do you wade through these confusing variables?

One solution is to do an LCA, but in reality there will never be enough time to do one on all your options and you often can’t rely on LCAs done by others because they may be skewed by bias (as in the case of a manufacturer picking assumptions that favour their product) or they may be based on assumptions that don’t apply in your situation (eg an LCA that was done for France, so the transportation and energy mix assumptions don’t represent the situation in the US).

So the practical response is usually to determine your own priorities and then assess your options against those criteria. This may seem obvious, but cost is always on the list. A sample of environmental and social criteria is given in the example below. A weighted criteria chart helps you manage multiple variables where the importance of each variable is different. If the criteria are all of equal importance to you, you can simply score each option without the weighting or check the option that best meets each criterion and compare the number of checks each option earned.

The two weighted criteria charts overleaf provide examples of criteria you may find important when making purchasing decisions. Once you have listed all the relevant criteria, weight each one on a one to ten scales, with ten being very good or high. Grade each option against each criterion, again from one to ten and put the result in the grey box.

Multiply the weight by the grade to produce a score and insert that in the white box beneath the grey one. Add all the scores in each column to see which option fared the best.

The first of the two charts have been completed as an example.

One note about cost: don’t just assume that the sustainable product will cost more, even if it appears to. Compare actual usage. For example, Nike found that even though a water-based solvent cost more per gallon, it didn’t evaporate as fast as the petroleum-based equivalent. It stayed in the bath, instead of exposing workers and thus cost less per shoe

to use. So before you settle for the less-sustainable option based on cost, ask yourself whether you will avoid any costs (disposal costs, sick days and medical costs, training in the use of hazardous materials, protective gear, legal liabilities, insurance costs, etc.) by choosing the more sustainable option. Be sure also to test out the new product to make sure it works as well or better than the old one, following the directions carefully. Sometimes green products need to be applied differently than traditional ones. For example, with cleaning products, it can make a difference whether you spray the cleaner on a rag or on the surface. It may be necessary to leave it on the surface for a few minutes before wiping.

Partner an NGO

Sometimes you might not be able to successfully complete your project without the help of others. NGOs can bring credibility, contacts and expertise to your sustainability effort.

For example, Dow has collaborated with the National Resources Defense Council to find ways to reduce the environmental impacts of their manufacturing process. Norm Thompson has used the Alliance for Environmental Innovation (affiliated with Environmental Defense) to encourage the catalogue industry to use recycled paper, and Starbucks has worked with Conservation International to support efforts to grow coffee in a more responsible manner.

Ben Packard, director of environmental affairs at Starbucks, warns:

It’s critical that your interests and those of the NGO overlap because the organizations can be so different. It’s not enough for them to be a great organization addressing an important issue. The issue [that the two of you are going to work on] must be centrally relevant to both you and the NGO. For example, we worked with Conservation International on shade-grown coffee where they were trying to protect biodiversity and local economies and we could provide a market for their product.

We’ve made the case in this chapter that purchasing is key not only to competitiveness but also to your environmental and social impacts. As a corollary to the Butterfly Effect, wave money around in the US and you may create storms elsewhere. Changing purchasing policies and procedures will go a long way to improving the sustainability of your operation. We’ve also provided examples of the kinds of individual sustainability-related projects you might initiate. 

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