5 keys to sustainable purchasing for colleges

Campus procurement offices take action to help higher ed institutions reach campus sustainability goals through greener purchasing policy and practice

A shared goal for everyone from top campus officials and other administrators on down to faculty, staff and students at colleges and universities is this: Reduce the institution’s carbon footprint. Campus procurement offices are increasingly playing a big part in getting it done.

Some eco-friendly buys are a no-brainer. But once a college makes the switch to 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, what’s next?

“Institutions are starting to think more and more comprehensively,” says Monika Urbanski, who led development of the Sustainable Campus Index for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). “They say, ‘We’ve got the paper challenge addressed—let’s talk about next-level items, like ink.’ ” Here are five key actions for deepening sustainability commitments through purchasing.

1. Examine purchasing policy and shift as needed

Even at schools with decentralized procurement, where individual managers are empowered to make their own purchases, general policies should lay out the university’s overall purchasing criteria. As complex as it may be, that whole framework may need to be rebuilt to allow for buying decisions that go beyond “lowest sticker price wins.”

Leaders at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, found they had to build “life-cycle costing language and criteria” into the purchasing policy.

That meant adding a section on sustainability and “best-value purchasing,” taking into account longer-term costs and impacts, says Rochelle Owen, executive director of the Office of Sustainability at the public research university. “We are not held to the lowest cost of capital to purchase something,” Owen says. “If it costs a bit more, but its life cycle is longer, we are able to purchase it.”

Also read: 6 strategies for smart purchasing at small colleges

Private and religious institutions can look to their missions as they refine their purchasing policies.

At the University of Dayton, a “Catholic, Marianist” institution in Ohio, administrators reflected on their larger goal of serving the common good. By 2019 they arrived at an official procurement policy that notes the “prudent expenditure of funds” up top but goes on to define that more broadly than minimizing spending.

“We added a lot of language that led us to environmentally preferable purchasing and beyond,” says Sara Harrison, executive director of Procurement and Payable Services. “We are tying together sustainable purchasing, supplier diversity, buying local and buying small. Even the preparation of that helped us see how we were unique.”

2. Help everyone to view the procurement office as a resource

Even when consulting the procurement office is considered voluntary, purchasing officers can help others to see them as an authority on how to buy greener. That technique has worked well for Matt Rumpza, director of purchasing and auxiliaries as well as accounts payable at Macalester College in Minnesota, a private liberal arts college enrolling 2,000.

Rumpza has made a point over the past seven years to serve on various committees with sustainability office representatives, allowing good ideas and collaboration to flow. Ideas have seeped from the bottom up, Rumpza says. Even without a centralized mandate, the success rate with using recycled paper stands at 96 percent. And Macalester has been rated highly for its environmental purchasing by industry trackers like AASHE’s Sustainable Campus Index.

Dalhousie administrators think strategically about where to make the biggest impact. The sustainability office determined that facilities is its campuses’ largest purchaser, with around 250 building-renewal projects each year. Leaders sit down together annually to talk about the key 20 or so projects, strategizing about how to minimize their carbon footprint. Sustainability and procurement also generate buy-in by co-hosting monthly lunch-and-learn sessions.

BIN WIN—At the University of Dayton, a $3,200 investment in composting and recycling bins placed near campus dining facilities realized a nearly 500% return on investment. The institution has saved $15,262 during the past 10 years by diverting 84 tons of compost from the landfill. University facilities and grounds crews reuse the compost, too, which has resulted in another $30,000 in savings
BIN WIN—At the University of Dayton, a $3,200 investment in composting and recycling bins placed near campus dining facilities realized a nearly 500% return on investment. The institution has saved $15,262 during the past 10 years by diverting 84 tons of compost from the landfill. University facilities and grounds crews reuse the compost, too, which has resulted in another $30,000 in savings.

3. Consider green buying for all corners (and walls) of campus

Items like light bulbs are a simple switch-out to energy-efficient LED. Across a multifaceted campus, areas such as reducing water and waste provide opportunities as well.

And how about a less expected item, like paint?

Portland State University undertook an initiative last year that stood out to AASHE: screening its paint supplier’s ingredients against green-building standards. After doing this, officials were able to get the vendor to remove worst-in-class “red-listed” ingredients, ultimately shifting them to low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints. “An institution leveraged its buying power to get another business to become more sustainable,” Urbanski says.

Another often-unthought-of area: biomass supply. In 2016 Dalhousie developed a statement on how it would procure wood: not clear-cutting mature trees and using waste products such as bark and residue from sawmills. School leaders even added a guideline for how far wood products would be shipped. Virtually any material or supply a college uses can be examined for sustainability this way.

4. Think holistically while partnering strategically

What do green up across campus (click on infographic to enlarge)

When campus leaders go to, say, buy more local food, they often find that a knot of interrelated challenges has to be untangled first. Emory University in Atlanta had an aggressive local-food-buying goal, but leaders at the 15,000-student institution couldn’t find enough food to serve that met their criteria. What helped: a partnership with the national land-conservation nonprofit Conservation Fund, whose Working Farms Fund provides access to affordable land to new, young or disadvantaged farmers.

Now when Emory makes the commitment to purchase local food from Working Farms Fund operations, participating farmers can use that commitment as bank-loan collateral. The partnership is new and won’t allow the school to meet its local-food goals for several years yet, but Emory leaders are laying groundwork that will pay off for farmers, Atlanta residents and the university community alike, says Kelly Weisinger, assistant director of sustainability initiatives.

Considering water purchasing decisions has led to a greener longer-term partnership at Emory as well.

Officials recently allowed a company to build an on-campus water reclamation facility that collects stormwater and blackwater, cleans it using microorganisms, and sells it back to the university for non-potable applications (utility process water, irrigation and toilet flushing). The company owns and operates the facility and leases the land it sits on for 20 years, when Emory will take over. “There was no cost to us upfront, and over time it will reduce our costs as well,” Weisinger says.

5. Avoid greenwashing

At the University of Dayton, procurement leader Harrison works closely with Sustainability Planning and Evaluating Manager Leah Ceperley. Together they examine third-party certifications and ratings systems across different product categories, from well-known designations like Energy Star and Fair Trade to more specialized designations.

They also partner with trusted providers. To a key group of 25-30 “strategic suppliers,” the University of Dayton communicates its priorities, and the companies report back on how sustainably they’re buying. In addition, the providers often come to Harrison and Ceperley with their own ideas and easy solutions for becoming more green. And they connect campus leaders with their own suppliers down the chain.

Also read: College procurement leaders play key role in financial prosperity

All of these efforts are important in ensuring that suppliers who talk the talk about sustainable missions actually walk the walk.
Greenwashing is an occupational hazard of the age of climate change, leaders agree. “There’s going to be a risk no matter what. It’s so difficult when you don’t have standard certifications across every commodity,” Harrison says. “But where there are certifications, we use them. We also look it up ourselves, we do audits.”

All in all, greening procurement takes building relationships, Harrison adds. “You end up playing this role of influencer and educator,” she says. “It’s not a dictatorship. People are smart on a university campus. They’re going to make a smart decision if they have the right information.”

Lynn Freehill-Maye is a New York-based writer. 

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