(41) Sustainability

 Buy Green Power

Finding Your Place in the Global Urban Movement to Fight Climate Change


Buy green power

No discussion of buying greener would be complete without considering the source of your power. Many utilities are now offering ‘green power’ options. When considered collectively the impacts of the power-generating industry are not trivial. According to the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the US electric power industry produced 1.1 billion pounds of toxic emissions in 1998, or 15 per cent of all US toxic emissions. In addition to toxicity concerns, many electricity sources produce greenhouse gas emissions, which have potentially adverse impacts on the global climate. In 1994, for example, 36 per cent of US carbon dioxide emissions were attributed to the utility industry against 30 per cent for transportation, 23 per cent for industrial facilities, 7 per cent for residential households and 4 per cent for commercial operations.

This does not have to be an all-or-nothing decision. You can decide to increase the percentage of your energy that comes from renewable sources by, for example, 10 per cent a year. Use energy efficiency measures to offset the additional cost. Since the fuel cost for renewables (eg wind and solar) is both stable and free, you may be able to set up long-term green power contracts that sidestep the volatile prices for fossil fuels, coming out ahead in the long run.

Create incentives and checklists for making more sustainable choices

Most of the strategies discussed above require someone to stop and think about what they are buying. And in this busy world, only a small proportion of people will be passionate enough to make the effort without some assistance and nudging. Such was the case at Norm Thompson, a catalogue retailer. The owners were passionate about sustainability and had trained practically everyone in the company. Having won over their employees they set their sights on transforming the catalogue industry by convincing their competitors to use 10 per cent recycled content paper (currently most catalogues are printed on 100 per cent virgin-fibre paper).

Despite all the hoopla and executive support, the buyers who sourced products for the catalogues had a difficult time understanding how to make better choices for product materials and, consequently, were struggling to make progress towards sustainable merchandise. Faced with this problem, corporate sustainability manager Derek Smith did

two things. First, he produced a simple scoring system for the buyers to use when evaluating the products they were considering. And second, the company tied 10 per cent of the buyers’ commission to improving their score over time. Even this small percentage was enough to capture the attention of the buyers.

You can use checkmarks or give the items scores. If certain characteristics are more important to you than others, you can give a multiplier or weighting to each characteristic.

Work with disadvantaged businesses and people as an economic development strategy The social side of sustainability often gets lost since the environmental side is easier to address. Purchasing agreements, though, offer opportunities to also address social considerations. Stop to ask the question, ‘How can we maximize the benefits to both ourselves and society?’

Ben & Jerry’s has long been recognized for its interest in socially responsible business practices. When they needed an additional source of brownies for their ice-cream, they signed a contract with the Greystone Bakery in Yonkers, New York, a non-profit organization that hires and trains people who are hard to employ, and uses its profits to house the homeless.

Non-profit organizations can also expand their positive impacts by designing their services for maximum impact. The Prison Pet Partnership Program takes dogs from shelters and gives them to women prison inmates to train the dogs as service animals. The dogs’ lives are spared, and the prisoners are taught skills in grooming and dog training. The dogs provide low-cost services for people with a host of different disabilities, and society benefits because the recidivism of the prisoners involved in the programme is significantly less than the average. The charity could have made different decisions that would have resulted in fewer benefits: they might have used pure-bred dogs from breeders, not used inmates to train them or only prepared the dogs to be good house pets. The decisions you make about vendors, suppliers and contractors can make a difference, big or small, to the well-being of our society. It’s your choice.

Life cycle assessment and life cycle costing

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a process of examining the impacts of a product over its entire lifetime: where do the raw materials come from? How are they transported? How is the product manufactured? How is the product transported and sold to a customer? How does the customer use the product? What happens at the end of its useful life? LCA quantifies the environmental impacts at each step in this life cycle and can be used to select products that have the lowest negative environmental and social impacts.

As a purchaser, you can request life cycle assessment data from your vendors. However, because LCA results depend entirely on the assumptions upon which they are based, it’s important to assess whether the assumptions used are unbiased and fit your situation. ISO standards require an external review of LCAs to mitigate this problem.

Related to LCA is life cycle costing (LCC), examining the costs (as opposed to the environmental impacts) over the life cycle of a product, from research and development and manufacturing to maintenance and disposal. Similar to activity-based costing, LCC helps you get a clearer picture of the true costs of several product options – it often becomes clear that the cheapest first cost is often not the cheapest in the long term. LCC allows you to take into account such factors as the longevity of the product, associated safety precautions and disposal costs.

For example, vinyl flooring is usually one of the cheapest first-cost flooring options. However, many other flooring options last longer, avoiding additional replacement and installation costs. So over the lifetime of the floor, vinyl is often not the best choice. LCC can help you determine the best overall return between options in capital projects. For example, most of the cost of a building is in its operation, not its construction, so LCC can help you determine which environmental features pencil out over the long term, even if they add up-front costs. Once you factor in training, safety equipment, hazardous waste permits and disposal costs, a product you thought was the most cost-effective might turn out not to be.


LCA for Mere Mortals by Rita Schenck, published by the Institute for Environmental Research and Education, BEES is software that helps you select more sustainable building supplies, www.epa.gov/oppt/epp/tools/bees.htm. and


Eco-indicator 99 is an LCA impact assessment method developed with the need for a practical eco-design tool in mind, www.pre.nl/eco-indicator99/default.htm

ISO 14040, www.iso.org.

US EPA website for LCA, www.epa.gov/ordntrnt/ORD/NRMRL/std/sab/lca/index.html



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