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Procurement Offices and the Environment

It would be a wonderful thing, we think, if the federal government could move forward on environmental issues. But as recently as a few hours ago, the Washington Post reported that Congress is still squabbling over details of a clean energy proposal, with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia holding out on one of the key elements of the bill that much of the remainder of his party supports.

We’re not going to get involved in this particular debate. But reading the Washington Post story about a Congress that has troubles making progress turned our minds to a column of ours that just came out in the Government Finance Officers Association’s Government Finance Review (GFR). In it, we made the point that there are some simple straightforward things that procurement offices can do to make for a cleaner environment.

True, these efforts aren’t going to turn the world on its head, in the way a massive federal action could. But any progress is better than none and at least a number of states and municipalities are making progress on this front.

So, we wanted to share some of the details of the GFR piece with those of you who may not read that publication. It focused on something called “environmentally preferable purchasing.”

“The idea,” we wrote, “is simple: If an entity is purchasing a good or a service, and can spend the same (or potentially even less) money in a way that’s beneficial to the environment, why not do it? There’s a seemingly endless list of purchases which can be made with an eye toward sustainability and environmental soundness, just beginning with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, fleets of vehicles including buses, paper, cleaning fluids, and on and on.”

As Stephen Gordon, a veteran of 45 years in the public procurement arena, who is coordinator of the all-volunteer advocacy group, The Continuity of Supply Initiative,

told us, Procurement can establish itself as a strategic contributor.”

As is often the case in this kind of thing, King County, Washington is a national leader in environmentally preferable purchasing.

One simple example was the county’s decision to carefully consider the cleaning fluids it uses (and goodness knows, in the days of the pandemic, it’s boom time for cleaning fluids). Some of them, it ascertained, contained potentially toxic chemicals, the kind of stuff we really want to keep out of our air and water.

As we wrote, the King County solution has been to “Buy concentrated cleaning fluids that hadn’t been diluted by water, as is the case with the kind of product that would be found in any large hardware store. By and large, such cleansers are about 80 percent water and 20 percent active ingredients. But by purchasing 55-gallon drums of pure chemicals, and then adding water ‘You’re saving money by buying more bulk solutions and then diluting them to an appropriate strength, which minimizes their negative impact on the environment’ according to Karen Hamilton, the county’s sustainable purchasing program manager”.

Of course, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world for procurement offices to adopt this kind of approach, in which procurement offices consider environmental concerns in the same way as they would other elements of so-called best-value procurement (the superior, and increasingly used, alternative to the old-fashioned low-bid only policies).

Hamilton candidly told us that “Some people in the agencies are concerned about change. They’ve been buying the same thing from the same company for a long time. And you have to persuade them that the products are going to add value.”

Still, as we pointed out in our column, “done properly, with safeguards in place to make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs, green purchasing can ultimately be a cost-effective way to keep our air and water clean.”


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