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Greening Government Procurement: Turning Uncle Sam Into an Eco-Friendly Consumer

Seeking the environmental “hot spots” in $600 billion of government purchases.
The U.S. General Services Administration building. (Photo: Cliff/Flickr)

The U.S. General Services Administration building. (Photo: Cliff/Flickr)

The United States government is a super-shopper. Every year it spends roughly $600 billion to conduct its non-military business, and every one of those purchases is made through the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that serves as Uncle Sam’s personal shopper.

Now the government is trying to be not only a conspicuous consumer, but a green one, too.

Many agencies have been pursuing environmental sustainability to various degrees for some time. In 2009, President Obama expanded those efforts by signing an executive order to establish an integrated strategy for pursuing environmental sustainability across the government and to make reducing greenhouse gas emissions a priority for federal agencies. The order sets targets in a variety of areas, including petroleum consumption, water and energy use, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

"The U.S. government is the single largest procurement body in the world, and with so much spending, its environmental sustainability actions can have a tremendous impact."

To support that effort, GSA contracted Sangwon Suh, a professor and a life cycle assessment expert at the University of California-Santa Barbara to identify and quantify the hotspots in the government’s purchasing supply chain.

“The U.S. government is the single largest procurement body in the world,” Suh says, “and with so much spending, its environmental sustainability actions can have a tremendous impact.”

But achieving real change requires more than concepts, ideas, and generally defined goals. It requires data, and life cycle assessment is the practice of generating hard numbers to measure the environmental impacts of products and services throughout their lifetime, from resource extraction through production, transportation, use, and end of life. As Suh tells his students at the university’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, “you can’t manage something unless you can measure it.”

But until now, he adds, “for most procurement officers and consumers, in both government and private sectors, the supply chain has been like a black box; they typically have no idea how the things that arrive at their door are made and what the environmental impacts are.”

The data sheds light on where to look in the supply chain to reduce the environmental footprint. “If a coffee shop owner is interested in reducing the climate change impact of his or her business, asking ‘How can I reduce milk and creamer use?’ is a better question than ‘Where should I buy my beans?’” Suh explains. “Measurement helps direct the focus to the right question.”

The government, of course, is a few orders of magnitude larger than the local coffee shop. “We’re analyzing the spending data for the entire federal government, which contains some 7.5 million line items, to identify environmental hotspots that need further attention,” Suh says.

The analysis is aimed at reducing the environmental footprint in six high-impact sectors: computer manufacturing; office furniture; management consulting; computer system design services; services to buildings; and waste management services, according to GSA procurement analyst Brennan Conaway.

Suh began this kind of work about 10 years ago with a project for the European Commission. Since then, he has completed similar research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, its equivalent in Denmark, and the United Nations Environment Programme. Along the way, he has developed an industry-standard database called CEDA, which he describes as “probably the world’s most comprehensive environmental data for products and their supply chain.”

The U.S. version of CEDA contains 430 product categories and their supply chain information, and more than 3,000 different environmental “exchanges,” or impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, resource consumption, water use, land use, emissions of toxic substances, ozone-depleting substances, and many more. GSA can use Suh’s data to develop new procurement instruments that support sustainable purchasing in all branches of the federal government.

“This study is really exciting to me, because the impact will be on the ground, in practices,” Suh says.

What the GSA does with Suh’s findings will vary, Conaway says, depending on “the nature of each sector” and “analysis of the extent to which current federal practices already address identified impacts, where gaps exist between impacts and guidelines, and the availability of standards, eco-labels, and other procurement solutions that GSA can use.”

The computer sector, for instance already has what Brennan describes as a “robust procurement solution” for greening federal purchases. Sectors that do not have such guidelines will have to be addressed differently by GSA.

While pursuing environmental sustainability is not new at GSA, the hard data from Suh’s study will allow it to expand its efforts by putting numbers on the impacts of its spending. A valuable practice for any shopaholic.