Developing a sustainable purchasing policy

By adopting a sustainable purchasing policy your organization demonstrates that it is committed to reducing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of its purchases.

Getting started - six key components

GreenStep Cities logoBegin by gathering information on other sustainability initiatives important to your organization. It might be helpful to create a policy team to assist with the development of the policy.

Consider connecting with the Minnesota Green Step Cities program – establishing a sustainable purchasing policy is one of the required Best Practices.

1. Purpose and background

Begin with a clear statement of why the policy exists (the rationale for the policy), how sustainable purchasing supports the organization’s goals and what the policy is intended to accomplish.

The statement shows how the sustainable purchasing policy is connected to existing mission statements, policies, statutes, and programs. It may specify that the policy governs purchase of goods and services, and that it applies to all purchasers and departments, vendors, contractors, and/or grantees. This first section should also include the definition of sustainable purchasing (consult the EPA and Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council for ideas).

Example – City of San Jose
The policy includes a clear statement about why they are doing it, how it supports their mission and goals, and what the policy can accomplish.

Other examples: City of Los Angeles, Durham County (NC)

2. Guidance and definition of terms

The sustainable purchasing policy should focus on the “big picture," and answer these types of questions:

  • Will the policy touch on pre-procurement issues like maintenance and reuse of existing assets?  Rental vs. purchase? 
  • Can a purchaser pay more for better products? 
  • Can life cycle costs be considered, so that a more expensive item that will last 3 times as long can be purchased instead of a less durable and less expensive product? 
  • How should third-party certifications (ecolabels) be selected? 
  • And how should various environmental attributes or goals be prioritized?  (e.g., Is bio-based better than recycled content?)

Example – Orange County (CA)
Addresses expectations when buying  environmentally preferable goods and services

Other  examples: Durham County (NC) (see page 5), City of Seattle (page 7 includes definitions)

3. Connect to internal & external mandates and policies

A sustainable purchasing policy is strengthened when it is connected to other existing directives. Be sure to include exact references to the relevant portion of the mandate or policy, so that policy users can jump directly to the correct section. The process of identifying these specifics can help reinforce the goals and provide additional levers for implementation of the sustainable purchasing policy.

Example – City of Seattle
Connects the sustainable purchasing policy to other related resolutions, rules, and plans.

Other examples: King County (embedded throughout), Sonoma County (page 3-4)

4. Address the use of standards and certifications

Provide guidance on the types of ecolabels that should be considered. Common criteria are:

  • Use of an open and consensus-based standard development process
  • Third-party verification used for conformity assessments

Beware of any ecolabel that can be purchased outright. Ecolabels are mostly unregulated, however the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides set some ground rules for environmental claims made on products. The Ecolabel Index can be a helpful tool for evaluating the myriad ecolabels on the market.

Example – Massachusetts
Addresses types of ecolabels to consider

Other good examples – City of Seattle (page 4, section 7)

5. Definition of responsibilities and authorities for decision-making

Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are critical to an effective sustainable purchasing policy. This is the place to identify the people (and specify which positions) within your organization who will be involved in implementing the policy. Establish teams to help implement policy elements such as selection of ecolabels, communication, training, and reporting.

Example – City of Minneapolis
Identifies what departments are responsible for implementing the policy, what department and team administers the policy.

Other  examples – City of Portland, City of Seattle, Santa Clara County

6. Accountability and reporting

The effectiveness of the sustainable purchasing policy can only be judged and enforced through good reporting. Include reporting requirements to keep those implementing the policy accountable. Reports can be requested from vendors as well as from departments within your organization. These reports should be submitted on an annual basis, at a minimum. This part of the policy should state who requests and who receives the reports.

Example – Durham County (NC)
The policy identifies key points in evaluating and reporting how the departments are meeting the goals and mandates.

Other good examples – City of Minneapolis, City of Seattle

Model policies

Request the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council's Model Sustainable Purchasing Policy & Handbook and check out their other resources on sustainable purchasing.