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How US government procurement can lead the clean economy

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After 50 years of incremental progress in making its purchasing more sustainable, the federal government still faces tremendous challenges to making acquisitions value sustainability, reduce carbon and halt climate changes to our environment. Every decision the government makes with its $600 billion of annual purchasing power has an impact — it could and should be a positive one.

Recently, a federal procurement official said, "We can’t just keep identifying individual products to preference if we expect to make a difference." For 50 years, the federal government has identified individual products with single environmental attributes for purchasing preference. It started with 10 recycled products and moved onto identifying products more energy-efficient than others. Then, it determined that products made with biobased feedstock such as corn and soybeans are preferable to petroleum-based products and continued identifying thousands of individual products for federal agencies to prioritize and buy.

While this was useful in pushing new markets for innovative products, the federal government continues to rely on these 20th-century practices instead of developing 21st-century solutions for using its purchasing power to buy more sustainable products and services in all acquisitions, from office supplies and furniture to multibillion-dollar construction and infrastructure projects.

The federal government, now more than ever, has an opportunity to reestablish climate leadership for itself, the nation and the world.

The federal government, now more than ever, has an opportunity to reestablish climate leadership for itself, the nation and the world. But as long as sustainable acquisition is viewed as just another socioeconomic program to be coordinated with other procurement policy priorities, not a priority in and of itself, it won’t be successful. Sustainable acquisition needs to take precedence, be encouraged by leadership and be prioritized in all acquisitions, by all agencies.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy, which has the lead for federal acquisition policy, has been focused on updating arcane purchasing requirements, making purchasing easier, more effective, online and results-oriented — all of which are laudable — but it has not yet incorporated energy and environmental sustainability into its solutions. After 50 years of effort, the government cannot successfully meet or measure compliance in a meaningful way to drive progress and increase reliance on a more sustainable, lower-carbon-emitting supply chain.

The federal government needs to lead, not follow the Amazons and Walmarts of the world. If life-cycle cost accounting (and decarbonization) become the measures by which our government weighs its purchasing decisions, as first recommended in 1992, then it would make decisions based on the triple bottom line — how they will affect social, environmental and financial outcomes — for the long term. Today, we have the capability and technology to ingrain sustainability into every acquisition decision.

By aligning acquisition improvement goals with sustainability, the government could institutionalize it by ensuring sustainability requirements, not just contract clauses, are included in every procurement decision. The easiest way to do this is to automate it in all agencies’ contract writing systems. While the government relies more and more on these automated systems to acquire goods and services, it has not incorporated performance standards for sustainability into those systems.

Contracting with contractors

Once every federal contract solicitation includes the government’s desire for the most sustainable, life-cycle cost-effective performance solution, the government can drive markets for newer, better, more innovative products, while letting industry drive innovation. Selection factors that place value on a contractor’s past performance in sustainability will enable the government to select the contractor with the best chance to perform while ensuring sustainability principles.

Additionally, the two largest online government ordering systems — GSA Advantage and DLA FedMall — need to update their search engines to ensure sustainable products are displayed prominently, that non-energy-efficient and other non-sustainable products are eliminated, and that attempts to purchase any non-sustainable products trigger a justification requirement from the purchaser to explain why the sustainable alternative doesn’t suffice. These actions, required by law since 2005, never have been implemented.

Focusing on federal purchasing of cleaner, more efficient products and services will create more American jobs and opportunities for innovative small businesses. Already, American industry produces many green products the world buys. Not only do green products and services advance new markets and a clean economy, they also create opportunities for more small and diverse businesses to become federal suppliers. Many sustainable suppliers, especially for biopreferred products, are mom-and-pop businesses in rural America.

As it can be hard for small, minority and women-owned businesses to break into the federal marketplace, providing innovative sustainable products creates an advantage for their sales. No one knows this more than the AbilityOne program, the nation's largest source of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. Through its network of 500 nonprofit agencies, the program provides the federal government products and services. AbilityOne increased its product lines to include more environmentally friendly, biobased products to meet federal demand.

Many sustainable products are competitively or better priced than conventional products. Some may have a higher first cost, but still save money by avoiding operations and maintenance costs — such as electric vehicles that have lower maintenance costs and longer-term warranties. Others reduce the total cost of ownership and disposition, such as EPEAT-registered computers, which are made with fewer toxic materials and can be returned at the end of life, not ending up in a landfill or, worse, dumped in a Third World country. And sustainable companies are more likely to look for ways to further social as well as environmental justice in their own businesses as well as their supply chains. The Green Electronics Council, which promotes EPEAT-registered electronics, has developed a Purchasers Guide on Labor and Human Rights Impacts in IT Procurements.

Sustainable acquisition is in alignment with President Joe Biden’s Buy America and clean energy plan objectives, which says he will "use the power of federal procurement to increase demand for American-made, American-sourced clean vehicles." As part of his commitment to increasing procurement investments, Biden is pushing a major federal commitment to purchase clean vehicles for federal, state, tribal, postal and local fleets. Such a commitment could help to dramatically accelerate American industrial capacity to produce clean vehicles and components, while accelerating the upgrade of the 3 million vehicles in these fleets.

Federal government employees stand willing and able to help Biden demonstrate federal leadership in converting our economy to one that is more resilient, sustainable, environmentally sound and economically efficient. They just need a little push from their new leadership — and someone to hold them accountable to act.

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