Greening the Federal Purchasing Machine – Leading By Example

By Jim Jones

Did you know that the Federal government is the single largest consumer in the world, spending close to $500 billion each year on a wide variety of products and services?

And did you know that in March the President issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies to meet a goal of buying 100% environmentally preferable products and services? This can make a big difference in reducing our environmental footprint. It can also spur consumers and the private sector to use and demand safer and greener products.

Of course the big challenge for federal agencies is how to sort through the hundreds of products with private labels that claim to be safe or environmentally friendly.

Now it just got easier for federal agencies.

First, the Executive Order directs feds to buy products identified by EPA’s Safer Choice, EnergyStar, WaterSense, SNAP, and SmartWay programs, USDA’s BioPreferred, and DOE’s FEMP programs to meet their needs.

Second, we are evaluating current private eco-labels to help federal buyers sort through which ones are the most credible and environmentally-preferable. We are using our draft Guidelines for Environmental Performance to do this pilot. We’re focusing on standards and ecolabels for 1) furniture; 2) flooring; and 3) paints and coatings. The results will help us with evaluations of other product categories in the future. For more information on our pilot, see

And third, in the meantime, we’ve released interim recommendations of standards and ecolabels to help federal buyers green their purchases. These include standards and ecolabels for construction, adhesives, flooring, insulation, paint, wood, custodial products, electronics, grounds/landscaping materials, office supplies, operations, fleets, shipping and a whole host of other products and services. These sustainability standards and eco-labels have been researched and verified by GSA and DOE, and feds can use them to ensure their purchases perform well and are readily available in the market. So if you need paper towels, there are recycled content requirements, as well as a recommended private label for paper products. We plan to regularly update these recommendations as we implement our Guidelines for non-governmental ecolabels and standards.

All of these efforts will help reduce our environmental footprint, support manufacturers that produce environmentally preferable products, and stimulate supply of greener products and services across the globe. By purchasing environmentally preferable products and services, federal agencies are leading by example, and protecting our health and the environment — for generations to come.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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The Science Behind Shopping For the Environment

By Thomas Landreth

Barcode with green tree illustrationLast week EPA announced draft guidelines under consideration to help purchasers across the federal government select the most environmentally-friendly and safe products.  Key components are the development and use of environmental standards and “ecolabels” to help make the environmental performance of products, such as energy output efficiency or the amount of biomaterial used during development, a seamless part of comparison shopping along with unit prices.

The challenge with coming up with such guidelines is that there are different standards for communicating environment performance on labels. When environmental performance claims are based on different standards, comparison of environmental performance information on labels is not possible.

EPA researchers are working to help. They recently co-led an international initiative to develop guidance on Product Category Rules (PCR), which will help organizations develop guidelines for products. Ultimately PCRs will allow comparable analyses of products’ environmental impacts.

The power of PCRs lie with generating a wider consensus on an approach for evaluating environmental impacts. The PCR approach will cover a product’s entire production cycle (Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA) to ensure accurate product comparison.

The Product Category Rule Guidance Development Initiative is a voluntary, international effort with more than 40 participating organizations dedicated to improving this ongoing guidance document.

In the first version published in September, the Guidance for Product Category Rule Development focuses on several key areas, including the general planning process for product rules, identifying what they need to cover, and coordinating a review process and series of ‘best practices’ leading to eventual publication and use.

The European Union has recently launched a Product Environmental Footprint program that will use this guidance to develop the rules for labels for European products. In the US, where these types of labels are not as widespread, there has recently been an increase in demand for standardized environmental information for building products, in part because of the new LEED 4.0 green building standards making credits available for products with these labels.

Cover of the "Guidance for PCR Development"In terms of reliability of information, PCRs are a step forward in making environmental data accessible and applicable, to both scientists and the public, helping us all be better comparison shoppers.

For more information:

About the Author: Thomas Landreth is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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