Green Purchasing Trends: Awash In The Green Product Cycle

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By Chad A. Safran
Published in the October 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

In fashion terms, green is the new black. But for facility managers (fms), green is not short lived or a trend that will be going out of style next season or even next year. Green is here to stay for the indefinite future, and fms are adapting to it in many ways.

They can work on methods to use energy more efficiently, conserve water, and recycle as much material as possible. However, those actions place a sizable reliance on modifying the behavior of the people who use the buildings. As individuals, fms can take control of the greening process with the installation of environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) practices throughout their facilities.

Incorporating EPP may seem simple. Find a product that touts its green qualities, order it, and put it into use. This is not the case.

When the federal government instituted “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” in January 2007 to enhance a 1993 directive on EPP, a 51 page document outlining instructions for implementing the new directive accompanied it.

While this may seem like a gratuitous bureaucratic action, EPP is more involved than a simple procurement preference. Legitimate EPP practices involve consideration of raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use, reuse, maintenance, and disposal. And considering the U.S. government is the largest consumer of goods and services in the country (total estimated spending of $350 billion per year), it is no wonder so many aspects have to be taken into account.

Yet, fms outside of the U.S. government do not have budgets that size, nor are they usually permitted to adopt deficit spending practices; they must find a way to limit the environmental impact of their purchases but concurrently stay fiscally responsible. This can create a dilemma for fms.

“One of the most difficult things about doing this is competing factors,” says Neal Angrisano, AIA, FAC, deputy director of facilities management, Johnson County, KS. “An example would be a product that has no recycled content but is made very well and will last a long time versus a carpet with great environmental properties but that comes from a mill 1,200 miles away.”

This is where third party certification can provide valuable assistance—particularly in instances where LEED certification is an important goal for a project. Organizations like Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, Inc., and Green Seal independently evaluate and certify products to determine their environmental impacts. These groups can assist fms in avoiding greenwashing.

Is It Really Green? 

Greenwashing means a manufacturer is providing false or misleading information about the environmental benefits of a product or service. It is the latest attempt by companies to jump into the environmental movement, and its pervasiveness is threatening to overtake the marketplace.

“Companies claim to be environmentally preferable, when in reality they are doing nothing more than using ‘green’ as a marketing gimmick,” says Charlotte Peyraud, marketing assistant at Green Seal, located in Washingon, DC.

Reading, PA-based TerraChoice, which oversees EcoLogo accreditation, released a “Green Paper” in November 2007 detailing greenwashing in the consumer marketplace. The research found that, of 1,018 products bearing 1,753 environmental claims, all but one committed some sort of greenwashing.

While the consumer market is not identical to the one fms find themselves in, manufacturers know that labeling something as “environmentally friendly” draws attention to their goods and services. This is why many fms have turned to third party certified items to help them determine what is actually green as they try to reduce their building’s carbon footprint.

“Third party certification to a legitimate environmental leadership standard eliminates greenwashing by providing [fms] with proof that a product meets a specific set of environmental requirements that was developed and approved in an open, public, and standard development process,” says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice.

Getting Some Outside Help 

The third party certification process does not happen overnight. Washington, DC-based Green Seal requires a product or service to fit into the scope of an existing standard first. (Standards must define environmental leadership, and only approximately the top 20% of products meets that mark.) Standards are often updated to reflect advances in technology and the market.

Organizations need to fill out a preliminary application for a product to be considered for certification. Green Seal then works with that particular company to evaluate data to determine whether the product or service meets the properties of an existing standard (e.g. recycled content). Each certification then requires an on-site audit.

Once the process is completed and a product certified, a one year award is granted. Companies must then recertify annually, which means a re-audit along with submission of written documentation.

For SCS, an Emeryville, CA-based firm, the certification process is just as involved, depending on the product and the claim being verified. “For a recycled carpet claim we find out where [the manufacturer] is getting the recycled fiber from, get invoices, make sure the recycling facility exists, and audit invoices to make sure the process is ongoing,” says group CEO and president Dr. Stan Rhodes. “There are limits to what auditors and third parties can verify. We do unannounced audits.”

If need be, SCS also includes lab testing in its verification process. Items such as paper can be examined for fiber distribution to see if it includes recycled content. Bio-degradable claims must be accompanied by a listing of ingredients and testing documentation to support the claim that the contents do indeed decompose in accordance with SCS standards.

“Use of third party certification is the best way to obtain true green products,” says John Mahin, OFM. Mahin serves as Angrisano’s purchasing manager. “They have not been greenwashed by a manufacturer wishing to sell more product by jumping on the green bandwagon but without making true changes to their product.

“Manufacturers can make a variety of claims about their own products, but these claims may not stand up to third party certifications,” continues Mahin.

And the number of products that independent organizations are certifying is growing rapidly. Green Seal has stamped its approval on more than 3,000 products; EcoLogo has a list topping 7,000 items; and SCS has nearly 1,000 products as well as dozens of companies that partner with its Forest Stewardship Council.

“We’re seeing a rapid increase in interest, but we’re also learning that only true environmental leaders are able to meet the standard. We’re seeing lots of disappointed people,” says Case. “Certification is much like an Olympic medal: only a small percentage of athletes ever earn one, although lots of people want them.”

What’s The Plan? 

Not only do these third party groups identify which products are green, but they can help fms develop a complete green purchasing program for their facilities. Green Seal identifies the “biggest bang for the buck” actions an fm can take to improve operations and maintenance practices. This effort begins with an analysis of an fm’s purchasing data to identify high environmental impact, high volume projects, and points out services that could be replaced by green alternatives.

Based on those findings, Green Seal works to create a multi-year plan to phase in the switch to alternatives. It also researches and provides technical specifications for a range of green products and services.

An fm’s purchasing policies, procedures, organization, and monitoring and reporting practices are all reviewed. Subsequently, improvement recommendations are made.

Green Seal’s recent plan for Los Angeles County revealed that changing from conventional janitorial paper products to certain alternatives with high recycled content and without chlorine saved an estimated 4,100 kWh of energy, 7,000 gallons of water, 60 pounds of air pollutants, and 3.5 tons of virgin wood.

How A Choice Is Made 

With all the standards and certifications, fms may find it difficult to obtain the right products to help green their facilities. Mahin considers several aspects when making his purchases: safety and health of use; impact on employees; toxicity levels; pre- and post-recycled content; effectiveness; cost; end of life recycling properties; and environmental impact.

He adds that there are also hidden costs in green purchasing. “It is important to note that when comparing cost, we should not focus on initial price alone. There is also calculating maintenance and operating costs, insurance, replacement cost, and potential liability costs,” Mahin notes.

Dr. Mark Rentschler, director of institutional greening at Green Seal believes it’s getting simpler for fms to find what they need. “Green purchasing can be quite straightforward,” he says. “There exists widely recognized green standards and certifications and a broad selection of products that meet those standards. Over time, as new standards become recognized by the marketplace, green purchasing will become easier in these standards too.”

What Is Next? 

Determining what is environmentally safe has changed greatly in the last 35 years. Purchasers once simply looked for recycled content or checked to see if the item was energy efficient. This is no longer the case.

Third party certification is revolutionizing the marketplace, according to Dr. Arthur Weissman, Green Seal president and CEO. “Third party certification can be a significant driver for greening the economy. Each of these programs has grown exponentially in the past five years, and continued growth is likely as the programs are accepted by more purchasers and suppliers and become the norm, not the exception. In the facilities area, more and more products, services, and operations will be covered by standards.”

Rentschler believes third party certification simplifies fms’ jobs by ensuring that the product or service really does what it says. “It protects the environment and generally meets certain requirements for performance and quality,” he says.

“If an fm has a mandate to green his or her operations, purchasing certified products and services provides proof to senior management that these goals are being met. The importance of using third party certification can be seen in the numerous state and local laws, executive orders, and RFPs mandating the purchase and use of certified green products.”

Navigating the current and future world of green standards, certifications, and purchasing may seem like another task on an already full agenda for fms. Unlike certain fashions, such as hemlines and collars— where sizes and lengths seem to change every year—fms won’t have the option of ignoring the green purchasing trend. They are going to have to wear it every day for a very long time.

This article was based on interviews with Angrisano, Case, Mahin, Peyraud, Rentschler, Rhodes, and Weissman.

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