At ASU, sustainable procurement isn't just an academic exercise

Tech@Work

At ASU, sustainable procurement isn't just an academic exercise

Arizona State University (ASU) isn't just a leader in the academics of sustainable business, it's also one of the most aggressive – and principled – organizations when it comes to embedding those principles into its operations.

A driving force behind the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, ASU strives to be carbon-neutral for its Scope 1, 2 and non-transportation Scope 3 emissions by 2025. It also aims to eliminate 90 percent of the solid waste generated on campus by 2015, and to halve its water consumption and elimimate all campus water effluent by 2020.

The university has made substantial investments in emerging technologies toward this end. As of late July, for example, close to 21 megawatts (MW) of solar panels are powering four campus locations and the ASU Research Park.

But one of the ASU operations team's most effective tools for working toward its larger sustainability goals is actually far simpler -- a business automation and process management application that lets it guide green purchases.

The developer behind this software is SciQuest, which happens to be a founding member of the Sustainable Purchasing Council, an organization dedicated to helping businesses develop and embrace sustainable purchasing practices.

SciQuest's software enables ASU to more closely control procurement of various supplies across the campus – everything from overhead projects to paper to the chemicals used in laboratories, said John Riley, executive director for purchasing and business services at ASU.

It's part of ASU's "principled practice" philosophy that drives objects and metrics across campus. At least 10 percent of the university's departments must be in compliance with the ASU Green Office Guidelines by 2018. "Our goal is to make the best way to do things the fastest and easiest way to do things," Riley said.

For that reason, the process is relatively transparent to the individuals placing the orders. Riley's team defines the parameters behind the scenes, negotiates relevant contracts with suppliers and then makes sure the items are reflected within its existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. This catalog is then accessed via the SciQuest software, which makes it easier for purchasers across the university to research their choices. "We show you the green products, as well as the stuff that is explicitly in stock," he said.

Riley's four-person team uses respected eco-certification systems, such as the Energy Star designation, to choose products. It also picks items with minimal packaging or arranges for vendors and suppliers to pick up boxes for larger items, such as technology purchases. It prefers containers that are reusable, recyclable or compostable.

The team has had to think outside of the box when it comes to picking the amount of certain items it will allow people to order at one time, Riley said. For example, several years ago, the standard order size for certain chemicals used in ASU lab experiments was reduced from a liter to a half-liter to minimize waste.

"We create the illusion of choice," Riley said.

Orders and transactions still happen outside of this system, currently used to cover about 240 million contracts and 8.5 million line items. One example is construction purchases.

ASU is planning an ERP software migration and eventually hopes to manage all procurement processes using the SciQuest approach, Riley said. He won't disclose what ASU pays for the SciQuest software, offered as a subscription via a cloud service, but ASU's deployment is handled as a five-year, flat-fee contract.   

Warehouse boxes image by Baloncici via Shutterstock