Environmental Impact Grows as Factor In Federal Purchasing, Officials Say

By Andrew Childers  

Businesses should consider conducting life cycle environmental analyses of their products and services to identify and mitigate environmental effects as the federal government scrutinizes its procurements more deeply, business and government officials said during panel discussions at the GreenGov symposium Oct. 31.

Nancy Gillis, director of federal supply chain emissions at the General Services Administration, said environmental sustainability is being considered along with cost and mission goals as the federal government weighs procurement purchases.

Gillis chairs an interagency work group that addresses supply chain sustainability issues for the federal government. She said procurement officials are considering not only the environmental footprint of products but company supply chain footprints as well.

Government purchases “really aren't sustainable if you're not taking a life cycle approach,” she said.

The environmental footprint of government contractors has increasingly become a factor in federal purchasing decisions as agencies implement the requirements of Executive Order No. 13,514, which requires agencies to meet a series of targets for cutting energy and water use and reducing waste and pollution (177 DEN B-1, 9/13/11).

Government Targeting ‘Hot Spots'

Although the federal government will not be demanding a detailed life cycle analysis of every product it purchases, Gillis said companies should be able to identify where in the life cycle of their product the greatest environmental impact occurs. She said GSA is reviewing its purchases to identify any environmental “hot spots” to identify products that have the greatest environmental impact and to devise approaches to mitigate their effects. Her working group also is developing recommended guidelines for product standards and labels that address environmental impact.

In a separate panel discussion, Mathy Stanislaus, EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said the federal government is using its purchasing power to promote sustainability in products and services through its Federal Green Challenge. Participating federal agencies commit to reducing their environmental footprint by 5 percent through electronics use, waste disposal, energy and water consumption, transportation, or purchases.

Stanislaus said his office is considering the life cycle of waste materials when it prepares regulations and is looking for ways to encourage more recycling. For example, EPA considered the environmental life cycle of various waste materials when proposing a rule to differentiate waste materials from those that can be recycled (76 Fed. Reg. 44,094; 208 DEN A-1, 10/27/11).

“Used electronics are very much an uptapped resource,” he said.

Stanislaus said recycling materials, particularly precious metals, from 1 million laptop computers saves enough energy to power 3,000 homes annually.

Logistics Are ‘Low Hanging Fruit'

Nate Hurst, global director of energy and the environment at electronics manufacturer Hewlett Packard Co., said the logistics of the supply chain is often the “low hanging fruit” for companies looking to improve their environmental footprint. It can also yield economic benefits. He said using less packaging allows companies to transport more products per shipment and reduces shelf space at stores, allowing them to display more products.

Recycling components or packaging materials can also improve a company's environmental performance, he said. Hewlett Packard has manufactured 1 billion printer ink cartridges from recycled material. Walmart also reached an agreement with Hewlett Packard to recycle some of its packaging material as pizza boxes, Hurst said.

Hurst said improving a company's supply chain requires accurate environmental data, public visibility, and corporate accountability. Complying with existing regulations is also he critical, he said.

“If your company is not complying with existing regulations, it's hard to make the case to get ahead of the curve and go above and beyond,” he said.

Although the federal government is pushing for businesses to do more to quantify the environmental life cycle of their products and supply chain, Stanislaus said more work needs to be done when measuring the results of sustainability investment. The government is working with businesses to develop accurate and uniform disclosure documents that will allow for better environmental accounting, he said.

“There is an absence in the marketplace to verify claims,” Stanislaus said.