Big Purchasers Can Spark Sustainability Shift

WASHINGTON, DC, July 24, 2003 (ENS) - Mega-consumers such as government agencies, corporations, international organizations, and universities are critical to the effort to shift the world toward an environmentally sustainable future, finds a new study from the Worldwatch Institute.

Environmentalists often focus on changing the consumption patterns of individuals, but these large institutions spend billions of dollars annually on goods and services and hold considerable sway over the health and stability of many of the world's fragile ecological systems.

The enormous purchases of these large institutions from vehicle fleets to cleaning supplies, "can have far greater consequences for the future of our planet than the buying habits of most individual households," said report author and Worldwatch Research Associate Lisa Mastny.

"Green purchasing will never be a magic solution to the world's rampant resource consumption, but it does offer tremendous opportunities for lessening the impacts," says Mastny.

The study by the international research organization - titled "Purchasing Power: Harnessing Institutional Procurement for People and the Planet" - details how the large scale, systematic approach that most institutions take in their purchasing can have large ripple effects on which products are used by hundreds or even thousands of individuals. UN

The purchasing power of many of the organizations that are keen on sustainability, such as the United Nations, puts them in a position to help spark a shift in that direction. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
Government purchasing, for example, accounts for as much as 25 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in some industrial countries.

Government procurement in the European Union alone totaled more than $1 trillion in 2001, or 14 percent of GDP, and in North America, it reached $2 trillion, or about 18 percent of GDP.

Worldwatch notes that universities spend billions of dollars each year on everything from campus buildings to cafeteria food.

In the United States, colleges bought some $25 billion in goods and services in 1999 - equivalent to nearly three percent of U.S. GDP.

International organizations are massive spenders as well, with the United Nations spending nearly $14 billion on goods and services in 2000.

"Just one environmentally focused purchasing policy or guidance - if properly implemented and enforced - can bring widespread benefits to an institution," Mastny explained. "By investing in everything from energy-efficient lighting to organic food, growing numbers of businesses, government agencies, hospitals, and other organizations are not only creating safer and healthier workplaces, but are also saving money."

Global consumption spending has increased six fold since 1950, according to the United Nations, with the wealthiest one-fifth of the world responsible for the vast majority of this spending. But Mastny reports that if enough demand for green products is generated, entire markets can shift.

For example, a 1993 directive by President Bill Clinton ordering the United States government to buy only computer equipment that met the higher energy efficiency standards of the government's Energy Star program helped set into motion a "massive overhaul of the consumer market."

The U.S. government is the world's single largest computer buyer and Worldwatch finds that Clinton's directive helped change the market to its current state, where 95 percent of all monitors, 80 percent of computers, and 99 percent of printers sold in North America meet Energy Star standards. Tahoe

The wealthiest one-fifth of the world own 87 percent of all automobiles, consumes 85 percent of the world's paper and 65 percent of all electricity. (Photo courtesy Chevrolet)
The report says that government purchasing is credited with spurring the rise of recycled paper to the level of standard office supply in many European countries.

Large corporations have a critical role to play in the push for sustainability - the report details the impact of U.S. home improvement retailer Home Depot's 1999 adoption of a green purchasing policy.

Responding in part to pressure from the Rainforest Action Network, Home Depot's decision helped shift other retailers to phase out endangered wood products and favor wood coming from sustainably managed forests. Today retailers accounting for more than 20 percent of the wood sold for the U.S. home remodeling market have made adopted similar policies and two of the nation's biggest homebuilders also pledged not to buy endangered wood.

Although green purchasing initiatives are gaining favor in the industrialized world, Worldwatch acknowledges that the developing world is a different story. And rising consumer demand in development countries only adds to the challenge.

Mastny suggests that institutions can help spread green purchasing in developing countries is by using their own procurements to strengthen local green markets.

The United Nations, the World Bank and multinational corporations can stimulate green markets by seeking to buy a greater portion of their goods and services from local green suppliers - something that Mastny adds can help these institutions and companies combat mounting criticism about the environmental impacts of their activities.

As more institutions realize that green purchasing can improve employee health, the environment, and the bottom line, Mastny says, "groups that disregard environmental factors risk being left behind."