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Sustainable purchasing gets its own umbrella organization

<p>The Sustainable Purchasing Council is creating a framework for sustainable purchasing mirroring the LEED system for green buildings.</p>

Literally dozens of organizations provide eco-guidance related to buying green products. What makes the Sustainable Purchasing Council (SPC) unique is its mission to help purchasing managers consider this process more holistically.

SPC, which launches officially at a July meeting in Washington, D.C., didn't set out to create its own rating system. Rather, it borrows a page from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED green building framework by using existing certifications and guidance to inform a systemic approach to institutional and corporate sustainable purchasing practices. GreenBiz senior writer Heather Clancy spoke with the council's executive director, Jason Pearson, about the council's initial priorities.

Heather Clancy: Why is this more than just another rating system? 

Jason Pearson: The first thing that’s important to say is that we did not set out to create a rating system. We set out to address the fact that institutional purchasers are asking for guidance on how to do sustainable purchasing comprehensively. They’re overwhelmed by the amount of product-specific guidance and hotspot-specific guidance out there, some of which is conflicting guidance.

Right now, any purchasing office wanting to implement a comprehensive sustainable purchasing program bears the burden of taking all that guidance that’s currently available and creating their own unique custom program out of it. They have to figure out what’s credible guidance and what’s greenwash; they have to figure out how to balance and fit together the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable purchasing; they have to create their own tools and training programs and performance metrics.

Obviously most purchasing organizations just don’t have the time or the training or the sustainability science to do all that, which is why many of them don’t get much further than recycled paper or energy-efficient appliances.

Clancy: Why do you point to the USGBC's LEED program as an inspiration?

Pearson: By coming together to codify the fundamentals in building green, the members of USGBC dramatically reduced the cost of green building and expanded who could do it. Suddenly contractors and architects and engineers who didn’t have degrees in environmental science were able to build genuinely green buildings and they didn’t have to be sustainability experts, because USGBC, as a community, did the hard work of figuring out what green building is and then organizing that guidance in an actionable format, a checklist.

Our goals are very similar: We want to bring people together to define what it means to comprehensively mitigate the impacts associated with all of an organization’s goods and services purchasing, and then organize that guidance into an actionable format that delivers high performance.

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Clancy: Who do you expect to become members and who is already involved?

Pearson: We’re trying to convene a community of purpose that is a broad, yet specific, community of professionals dedicated to using the power of sustainable procurement to enhance local and global quality of life. The Council was initiated by the membership of The Keystone Center’s Green Products Roundtable (GPR), a facilitated stakeholder group that represented manufacturers, retailers, purchasers, distributors, certifiers and other experts and thought leaders. It is currently guided by a steering committee that draws from that membership.

The committee is chaired by (senior director of environmental strategy at Office Depot) Yalmaz Siddiqui and Dr. Anastasia O’Rourke from DEKRA. Other members of the steering committee come from the U.S. Department of Energy, UL Environment, Goodyear, [World Resources Institute] and the city of Washington, D.C. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration have appointed liaisons. That’s the core of the current management, but we’ll be officially launching the founders and partners at a meeting in Washington on July 22 to 23.

Clancy: How will priorities be set and decisions made?

Pearson: The council itself is a non-profit organization, and it’s governed by a board of directors whose full membership has not yet been appointed, but the first group of the founding board of directors will be appointed in July. In the interim, a small operating board is overseeing the prelaunch activities of the organization with input from the steering committee, which was drawn from the membership of the GPR. That board will have ultimate operational oversight over the activities of the council. The council is also forming an advisory group. Members of the Founders Circle are part of that advisory group, and representative experts will provide input on key strategic and tactical issues related to the work of the council as a whole. 

The Guidance and Recognition Program, however, will have an independent governance structure that’s designed to balance social, environmental and economic interests. The final design of that governance has not yet been determined. We hope it will be fully determined at the July launch meeting.

But our goals are that the program be grounded in good science and expert knowledge and also be responsive to the practical reality of implementation grids to users who are large institutional purchasers.

Clancy: Can you discuss what the initial framework will cover?

Pearson: There’s a whole world of analysis that looks at the overall spending of large institutions and where the largest impacts for sustainability opportunities are, associated with that overall spending -- what best available science tells us about the associated social and environmental and economic opportunities for sustainability events within the categories. That whole world isn’t always well-connected to the world of standards and eco-labels. So the GPR spent a number of years working out how to sync the process of connecting those two worlds -- connecting the world of labels and standards and certifications with the world of analyzing an organization’s overall spend to understand where the largest areas of impact (exist) and what types of impacts they are.

So the framework is really an intellectual tool for connecting those two pieces, and that intellectual work is an input to our process.

Clancy: What would motivate a purchasing manager or someone with a hand in these functions to become part of this?

Pearson: The answer varies depending on the role that that individual or that organization might play in the marketplace. Generally speaking, we believe that all of the organizations that join the SPC will be joining for one or all of three reasons: reducing cost and risks, increasing business value and gaining access to people and information.

Clancy: You’ve mentioned a couple of things the organization hopes to achieve by the July meeting. Now that your mission is becoming public, what can we expect next?

Pearson: Most important, we will be having an informational webcast [June 19] that will provide some of that information very publicly. And then those organizations that have engaged with the council either as founders or as partners will be welcome to attend the launch meeting. At that meeting, we will finalize governance structure, prioritize key workstreams for 2013-2014 and formalize a set of principles for sustainable purchasing that will act as the touchstone for the council and its work on an ongoing basis.

Looking forward to the next, say, one to two years, we’ll be focused on two goals. The first is more of a long-term goal: That we have Version 1.0 of the guidance and recognition program up and running by March 2015, so that any large institution can start to benchmark its progress over time and against peers. So much of our work over the first 18 months will be focused on stewarding and facilitating the various advisory loops that need to form to define key aspects of that program.

The second goal, which is really a series of shorter-term goals, relate to the shorter-term workstreams for 2013-2014 that we will propose as options for consideration at the launch meeting. ... Some of these projects, just to give you a sense of them, would include finalizing the set of principles for sustainable purchasing, which we will use as our compass or touchstone, but which other organizations also could use to organize their work; a how-to manual for integrating the best existing hotspot-/product-specific guidance with spend-management procurement processes; an overview of available spend analysis methods for large institutions; guidelines for prioritization and action planning for sustainable procurement; and a suite of solicitation-ready guidance for selected product categories.

Our goal is within the first year to have at least three of those tools out in the market.

Clancy: How will you work with other eco-organizations and standards groups?

Pearson: I really want to emphasize that we believe that our work will accelerate the adoption of the most credible and useful frameworks that have already been developed or are under development by other organizations.

To that end, we’re actively seeking to build collaborative relationships with the many other organizations that are already contributing value in this space. Among these, particularly in the sustainability space, we are specifically pursuing initial partnership conversations with The Sustainability Consortium, Responsible Purchasing Network, USGBC, Business for Social Responsibility, ICLEI’s Procura+ program, American National Standards Institute, UNAP, EPA and GSA. We’re also in active conversations with the National Association of State Procurement Officers, the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing and the Institute for Supply Management. 

Our intention, and this is also really core to our values, is to be collaborative in our relationship with all of these organizations.

You might even say our ambition is to be a practical interface between large institutional purchasers and the tremendous amount of value that is available in the marketplace to guide their decisions.

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