Create the Green Economy You Want BEFORE You Graduate!
While this article is written for students, AASHE invites faculty, staff and administrators who are committed to producing graduates to lead the transition to a sustainable economy to join the conversation. For this audience, the article can read: “Create the Green Economy You Want BEFORE You Graduate Your Students.”
You have at your disposal a tool that can create the “green economy” of your dreams. What’s more, you can use that tool to put yourself in an excellent position to win a job in that green economy after you graduate. How do you find and use this tool? By acting before you graduate to change how institutions like yours buy products and services!
Higher education institutions in the United States spend tens of billions of dollars annually procuring an extraordinary range of products and services, according to a 2010 report (pdf) produced by AASCU & NAEP. If sustainability criteria were incorporated into all procurement decisions made by higher education institutions, it would drive the innovation of sustainable products and services in a profound way. Think about it. Higher education purchases a share of nearly everything consumed by the greater society. Institutional purchases include vehicles, cleaning services, food, apparel, lab equipment, televisions, whole buildings, financial services, medical supplies, shower heads, insurance, you name it!
Higher education buys these things from the same large companies and small local businesses that the rest of us buy from. When higher education makes sustainability a key part of its purchasing decisions, it has the opportunity to influence what is sold to everyone else. That is why getting involved in how your institution buys products and services will give you a hand in creating the green economy you want!
Some of you may be aware that public institutions often have to purchase things through state negotiated contracts, which means it isn’t as easy to insert sustainability criteria into purchasing decisions as it might be at a private institution. You can let that discourage you, or you can see that as an opportunity to influence the hundreds of billions annually spent through state contracts! While changing state contracts can be a longer process, the impact will be multiplied many times. Imagine the impact if your advocacy resulted in your entire state government upping the post-consumer recycled content of all the paper it purchases.
In the U.S., the green economy is sputtering along with the whole economy. Green jobs stimulus funding is coming to an end. Tax breaks are expiring. New environmental regulation that would drive investment in sustainable technologies is scarce. Not surprisingly, new investment by companies in green product development is slowing in kind. (See Searching for the Good News in the Sputtering Green Economy on GreenBiz.com)
The good news is that we’ve been here before. By “here” I mean the point at which supply-side solutions falter and we have to switch our attention to “closing the loop” through the creation of demand-side solutions. The recycling movement originally took off on the supply side with materials collection programs in communities and at institutions. It wasn’t long, however, before the supply of reclaimed materials far outstripped the demand for them. Many manufacturers were comfortable using virgin materials and didn’t see a need to change to reclaimed materials. Thus, programs had to be created to foster buyer demand for products made from recycled materials. Public awareness campaigns to “buy recycled” were launched, along with labeling schemes to help customers identify and patronize products from manufacturers that used reclaimed materials. It worked. The buyer-demand convinced manufacturers to give reclaimed materials a try. Today, manufacturers are so comfortable using reclaimed materials that sometimes they don’t even bother labeling them or charging a premium for them.
It’s time to move from closing the recycling loop to closing the loop in the green economy as a whole. Every day, companies, cooperatives and nonprofits are bringing to market products and services that are more sustainable than the ones we already use. Some of them make it. Some don’t. One of the biggest reasons they don’t make it is because they can’t find buyers that are willing to break from the comfortable familiarity of the product or service they have always used in order to adopt a more sustainable alternative. Is your institution one that is willing to consider products and services that are more sustainable than the ones it is used to? Is it proactively asking vendors to find more sustainable alternatives? To close the loop on the green economy, we need it to be.
For big companies, it isn’t so much a matter of whether they survive or not as it is whether they continue to invest in green product development. According to GreenBiz.com, big companies report that the largest factor in their environmental strategy is customer demand. When buyers demand sustainable products, big companies create teams or divisions devoted to providing sustainable products and services. When buyers purchase those products, that team or division grows - as does its clout in corporate strategy meetings. When buyers don’t show up, the teams are disbanded, the products sidelined and the customer demand deemed a passing fad. Is your school using its customer relationship with large vendors to expand the clout of the “green teams” in those companies? If it isn’t asking for green products and services in every Request for Proposal (RFP), there’s no incentive for vendor representatives to seek out the green team within their corporation and bring their work to the forefront.
Your institution, and higher education in general, is in a perfect position to be an early adopter that catalyzes sustainable products and services. Here’s why.
Ability to prioritize sustainability
Higher education decision-makers often have more leeway to consider sustainability factors in purchasing decisions than do their peers in business and government. This is due in no small part to the buyer demand being exerted on higher education buy it’s customers - you! Sixty-nine percent of college applicants say information about a school’s sustainability will influence their decision, according to the 2011 Princeton Review Hopes & Worries Survey.
Serves the educational mission
You, your faculty and your future employers all want you to engage “real-world problems” during your studies. From life-cycle assessments to user behavior studies to market research, there are ample opportunities in a wide range of disciplines for you to engage real-world problem solving via procurement. And the learning opportunities don’t have to stop when the purchase decision is made. Educational opportunities can be incorporated in implementation, verification and even future innovation. This is particularly true when your institution's procurement contracts require vendors to facilitate student engagement or even incentivize it through internships.
Prepares students to get jobs in the green economy
Valuable real-world problem-solving experience doesn’t have to be sustainability-oriented. But for those of you who want to go into green careers, getting experience working on real-world sustainability issues can be a big leg up in a highly competitive green jobs market. In 2009, Bright Green Talent, a green talent recruiter service, reported to GreenBiz.com that “supply and demand for green jobs are wholly out of whack” because green jobs are scarce relative to the supply of job seekers. The anecdotal evidence I have suggests that is still the case two years later. When it comes time for you to get a job, the professional contacts created through collaborating with vendors can be invaluable. I’ve seen a number of students get hired upon graduation by higher ed vendors they worked with on campus projects while still a student.
Ability to combat greenwashing
When I was working post-graduation with Duke University’s procurement services division to implement the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guidelines we’d drafted while I was a student, I saw vendors pitch plenty of greenwash at our procurement staff. In a number of cases, students were able to assist the already-busy procurement staff by researching the environmental claims being made. It was a win-win for both sides. Only higher education procurement departments can enlist eager students in evaluating the green claims and cost/benefit of various copier paper products - as a class project!
You may have heard the myth. The one that says green products and services always cost more. People who’ve been told the myth can be forgiven for thinking that green procurement initiatives won’t get far in a down economy. Fortunately, they’re misinformed.
Many green products don’t require any additional funding
Your institution is already spending money buying essentials like paper, cleaning supplies, etc. If your institution asks vendors to help it re-direct the money it is already spending to better alternatives, it will quickly find there is plenty of low-hanging fruit that doesn’t cost a penny more!
Many green products save money
Some green products save money because they simply cost less upfront, while others save money by reducing associated costs, such as energy use, waste hauling fees, and labor.
Investigating green products can lead to new sources of funding!
For example, many people think solar panels are frightfully expensive, but Butte College worked with solar vendors to find grants and secure financing that will allow their solar farm to eliminate the school’s electricity bill and generate revenue for the school to spend on improving academic offerings and expanding student enrollment.
What You Can Do
Reach out to the procurement professionals on your campus to see how you can help.
There is a good chance they are already working on green procurement. According to a 2010 survey (ppt) conducted by the National Association of Educational Procurement (NAEP), 53 percent of higher education procurement professionals reported that green procurement is an official part of their school’s sustainability initiative.
Read Kevin Lyon’s book Buying for the Future: Contract Management and the Environmental Challenge.
This short book is written for procurement professionals, but it is written in approachable language that can introduce you to the tools of the procurement trade and how they can be used to advance sustainability - in a higher education setting, no less.
Check out AASHE’s extensive Sustainable Purchasing Resources.
There you will find dozens of green procurement policies adopted by all sizes and types of schools (maybe even your own school) and real-world green purchasing case studies. You’ll also find discounts offered to AASHE member institutions.
Contact vendors of products and services that excite you!
- Ask them to help you make the business case for bringing their product or service to your school.
- Ask them to help you identify who the traditional decision-makers are for purchases of their product or service so you will know who you need to start with on your campus.
- Invite them to speak to your student group. (It’s free professional development for your group members and an opportunity for the vendor to learn about your campus. If you are really excited about their product or service, you can even take it another step and invite relevant staff and faculty to meet with them while they are on campus.)
- Ask them if they can arrange a field trip for your student group to see their product or service in action or to visit their factory. Invite staff and faculty to come along!
- Contact several vendors offering products or services that address the same problem, so you get a sense of the range of solutions available and pricing in the marketplace.
Two great places to find higher education vendors that are prepared to talk sustainability with you are the AASHE Business Member Product and Service Directory and the Expo that accompanies AASHE’s annual conference.
Help build user acceptance. One of the things you’ll probably hear from your institution’s procurement professionals is that sometimes campus community members will reject innovative new products and services in favor of what’s familiar. It’s a real problem, and one that students are especially well equipped to help with. For example, students have the time, energy and political leeway to run around campus talking to office staff about stocking their supply closets with more sustainable office products.
Don’t forget to share what you accomplish in the area of sustainable purchasing! Changing how the entire higher education sector spends money is going to require working together and sharing successes and lessons learned.
- If you develop some great RFP language, share it on the AASHE forum.
- If you have a procurement-related case study to share, submit it to AASHE’s Campus Sustainability Case Studies Database.
- If your institution develops a sustainable purchasing policy, submit it for inclusion in the AASHE Resource Center by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- If you do a class project or conduct independent research related to sustainable purchasing, submit it to AASHE’s Student Research Database.
- Submit a proposal to present your sustainable purchasing work at AASHE’s annual conference.
- Share your experience and invite peer feedback by writing an AASHE Student Diary. Diaries are featured in the AASHE Bulletin, which reaches nearly 11,000 students, staff, faculty and administrators involved in campus sustainability.
I hope you found this article inspiring and useful. Sustainable purchasing was a very effective and meaningful part of my activism as an undergraduate. That work led me into a green career. I hope it can do the same for you.
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