Federal laws, regulations, and executive orders have imposed requirements for federal agencies to move toward the sustainable acquisition of goods and services, including the incorporation of sustainable purchasing into federal agency decision making. In particular, two Executive Orders—EO 13423, Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, signed in 2007; and EO 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, signed in 2009—include specific goals and objectives for sustainable purchasing by agencies. Federal government green purchasing efforts, however, can be traced back to at least EO 12759 signed by President Bush in 1991. The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on goods and services each year. Since the federal government is such a significant player in the market, its move to incorporate sustainable procurement practices could have a profound impact on the types of products being developed for the market as a whole.
The General Services Administration (GSA) has played a key role in furthering sustainable procurement practices throughout the federal government. GSA is responsible for formulating and maintaining government-wide policies covering a variety of administrative actions, including those related to procurement and management. GSA has several ongoing activities related to sustainable procurement, many of these related to Section 13 of EO 13514, which directed the agency, in coordination with other key agencies, to assess the feasibility of working with the federal supplier community—vendors and contractors that serve federal agencies to
measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain while encouraging sustainable operations among suppliers. GSA has also been actively developing programs to assist federal agencies in making sustainable procurement decisions. As federal agencies cannot directly fund the development of sustainable procurement tools, they are particularly interested in understanding how to foster innovation and provide incentives for collaboration between developers and users of tools for sustainable purchasing throughout the supply chain. The training of procurement professionals is also a priority for these agencies.
Agencies also face challenges related to whether and how suppliers collect and provide data on the sustainability of their operations. For example, suppliers may not be collecting data on their greenhouse gas emissions or may not be willing to provide the data to agencies due to concerns about confidentiality or competition. Agencies are actively evaluating opportunities to encourage suppliers to disclose relevant data on sustainability performance. Ultimately, procurement professionals may need to access these types of data to make decisions about sustainable acquisition activities for their agencies.
To assist efforts to build sustainability considerations into the procurement process, the National Research Council appointed an ad hoc committee to organize a two-day workshop that explored ways to better incorporate sustainability considerations into procurement tools and capabilities across the public and private sectors. The workshop was designed to help participants assess the current landscape of green purchasing tools, identify emerging needs for enhanced or new tools and opportunities to develop them, identify potential barriers to progress, and explore potential solutions. Participants also considered the workforce and associated training required to realize the full benefits of these tools. Participants at the workshop included: users of sustainable procurement tools (including federal, state, and local governments and industry), experts in sustainable procurement, developers and users familiar with open data, and individuals from companies that develop and provide procurement tools and software. The workshop provided an opportunity for participants to discuss challenges related to sustainable purchasing and to developing new procurement tools.
Presenters discussed tools currently used in sustainable procurement, such as databases for ecolabels and standards, codes, or regulations; calculators that track environmental footprints; software for traceability of materials; and life-cycle assessment (LCA) software. Some participants viewed the development of apps for smartphones and tablets as a useful emerging capability with significant potential for incorporating procurement tools and applications. Other nontechnological tools were discussed as well, such as procurement policies, frameworks, rating systems, and
materials or product indexes. In considering existing tools and requirements for new ones, several overarching themes and associated criteria emerged from the workshop presentations, breakout groups, and discussion sessions, including:
• Integration of sustainability criteria for products and services
• Data management and cloud computing
• System integration and interoperability
• Encompassing the full extent of the procurement process
Participants discussed the enormous amount of data that would be required to give procurement professionals access to real-time information in order to make up-to-date, effective decisions. Integrating procurement systems with other systems—especially financial ones—was discussed by many participants as key to new tools for sustainable procurement. Many participants also noted that agreement on a standard language— semantics and syntax—is important in furthering progress in systems integration and ultimately to entire sustainable purchasing networks.
In addition, some participants pointed out that culture and workforce training are critical to ensuring the success of any new tools developed for sustainable purchasing systems. Sustainable procurement results from a complex system of suppliers, vendors, program managers, contracting officers, and procurement professionals. Some participants noted that making information and tools available at points earlier in the procurement process—not just at the purchasing phase—would allow sustainable procurement to be approached more holistically. Empowering procurement professionals to make more informed decisions was also suggested as key to making change in these areas. Pilot projects, training, and collaboration were presented as ways to build “buy-in” from procurement professionals and leadership, which is important in ensuring that sustainable purchasing practices and tools are used to their full potential.