Institutional purchasers in the U.S. wield tremendous buying power, to the tune of more than $10 trillion a year. Directing that money toward eco products and services could make major gains for the sustainability movement, but hurdle after hurdle remains in the way for many buyers.
The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC), formally launched this week, aims to level the playing field by bringing together best practices, defining green products and recognizing organizations that have taken big strides to source sustainably.
"While there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the sustainable purchasing movement, there has never been a more challenging time," Kevin Lyons, assistant professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School, said during a GreenBiz webcast that announced the SPLC on Tuesday.
"The complexity of the task can be overwhelming," Lyons said, ticking off just some problems that purchasers face: determining which of the 400-plus green labels and standards are credible, creating training materials, answering surveys about products, not knowing what to measure and ultimately, doing all of that alone.
"We don't have to work in isolation anymore," he said.
LEED for purchasing
One point reiterated throughout the discussion was the comparison between the SPLC and the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED program. Just as the USGBC has become the go-to guide for what makes a green building green, the SPLC aims to define what makes a sustainable product sustainable.
But it's not just about defining sustainable purchasing; the SPLC plans to provide training, give guidance on products and services, develop a community of purchasers from all sectors and create a rating system for purchasing programs.
Following along with the impact that LEED has had on green building, the SPLC plans to both raise the bar on what it means to purchase sustainably and also recognize the best of the best, said GreenBiz Group executive editor Joel Makower.
"Sustainable purchasing can be confusing; there aren't enough reliable standards for some of the things institutional buyers are purchasing," he said. "There is a need for tools and best practices and credible third-party recognition for leaders."
A big tent
While this week's announcement was the formal launch of the SPLC, it’s the culmination of a year of work that has brought together corporations, universities, NGOs and others to explore the issue and set a path forward.
Yalmaz Siddiqui, senior director of Office Depot's environmental strategy, said that the council will lean heavily on existing knowledge, practices and systems that are already in place, although currently disconnected from one another.
"We want to bring that all together in a consistent approach, a consistent program that enables someone to say to their purchasing team, 'Just like there is a LEED system for green buildings, there is a program for sustainable purchasing,' and they can act with greater clarity," Siddiqui said.
Jason Pearson, executive director of the SPLC, emphasized that the council will build off what's already being done by bringing purchasers together and culling out the best of the best practices, acting as sort of a curator.
Among those that will bring lessons learned to the table is the U.S. Department of Defense, the largest buyer within the federal government and also one that won't settle for anything less than the best performance.
"If the products don't work, we're not going to use them," said David Asiello, program manager within the DOD's office of the under secretary of defense. The DOD has a pilot program in place for demonstrating the performance of products, and is running demos for greener versions of hydraulic fluids, cutlery, insect repellant and gun cleaners. The SPLC, in turn, can act as a funnel to take the results of those field tests to other interested parties.
The road ahead
The council already has its next two years planned out, starting with a Founding Summit in late August, where it will work out its mission, vision and values; the governance of the council; and its Principles for Leadership in Sustainable Purchasing.
The next year will see a final version of its definition and principles of sustainable purchasing, guidance and training on impact assessment methods, as well as guidance on high priority products and services. Two years from now, the council expects to have refined action planning guidance and tools, additional product guidance and a pilot version of its rating system.
One type of guidance will be on how to compare and contrast the economic, social and environmental impacts of products and services. Siddiqui said that some green products will have higher upfront costs, others will be less expensive in the short term and others will hit on all three points, a sentiment echoed by Rutgers' Lyons.
"Most exciting, more and more organizations are recognizing that social, environmental and financially responsible purchasing are one and the same," he said.
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