By Bicky Corman
There’s growing demand for products that perform well, have a light environmental footprint, and are produced by people earning fair wages under safe, humane working conditions. That’s a big list of requirements for any given widget. It’s no surprise that purchasers trying to buy greener products have difficulty knowing which products meet those criteria, including navigating the more than 400 eco-labels and standards that exist worldwide.
The U.S. Government has long recognized that it can leverage the enormous power of public procurement by providing a large market for early adopters, nurturing new products and services to a point where they can become commercially viable. As the Nation’s largest energy consumer, it recognized that buying green could save taxpayers money, enhance national security, and spur innovation. During the 90s and the 2000s, it began to uniformly purchase fuel-efficient vehicles, require double-sided printing, and purchase EPEAT registered and Energy Star qualified products.
On June 17th, I had the privilege of participating in a discussion on Building Markets for Greener Products in the Rio +20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, where speakers from governmental and private sectors, academia and international organizations described new partnerships, tools, and commitments to build markets for greener products.
I spoke first, describing a recent U.S. Government initiative under Executive Order 13514 to have 95% of new public procurement actions include energy- and water-efficient, biobased, environmentally preferable, generally safer, and recycled content requirements.
Greg Crosby, from USDA, spoke about the launch of their “LCA Digital Data Commons, a new “one stop shop” built to house credible, high quality, data on the full, life-cycle environmental footprint of commodities and products, to help producers, retailers, and consumers make educated choices.
Private sector representatives underscored with specific examples the importance of understanding consumer demand, as well as understanding a product’s environmental footprint across its full life-cycle, in order to most effectively deliver greener products to the market. Dr. Peter White, from Proctor and Gamble, noted analysis that 10% of consumers will not buy greener products; 15% will buy green, even if it means that they must pay more; but 75% will buy green if it does not require making any trade-offs. Anna Walker, from Levi-Strauss, shared her company’s life-cycle analysis of its 501 jeans that showed the largest impacts occurred in the consumer use phase (e.g. washing and drying). Nonetheless, Levi’s has redesigned its 501jeans so that they take less water and fewer chemicals to manufacture. They also changed the care label to promote line drying.
UNEP’s Fanny Demassieux discussed the “Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) Initiative,” a new international partnership expected to be launched at Rio20 aimed at supporting SPP assistance to developing countries, collaborative research and tool development, and sharing of best practices. Prof. Cassia Ugaya from Brazil, described the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, an international multi-stakeholder collaboration with a mission of bringing science-based life cycle approaches into practice worldwide.
About the author: Bicky Corman is the Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.