Red, White and Green?

Standing in a “river of consumption”—that’s how General Services Administration (GSA) administrator Martha Johnson introduced a roundtable discussion aimed at helping GSA meet its recently announced “zero environmental footprint” goal.

As the U.S. government’s landlord and procurement agency, GSA provides advice on purchasing the $425 billion worth of goods and services the government uses annually. The GSA also manages more than 10,000 buildings and 217,000 vehicles and, maybe more importantly, takes back over 10,000 out-of-date computers every day for reuse, recycle or disposal. This is a lot of stuff and it certainly flows; where it starts, how it is used, and where it goes after use are at the heart of “greening” any organization’s operations, especially those of the largest purchaser in the world.

“It” is not easily defined. It is printing paper, tissue, uniforms, food, cleaning supplies, vehicles, building materials, and the list goes on. A major focal point for GSA—and many other large purchasers—is figuring out where to start. Setting priorities for impact reduction is both simple and difficult. It is simple in that areas of consumption that require a lot of energy (in making the product, transporting it or using it), or that touch production agricultural systems (where high chemical and energy inputs bump up against impacts to changing landscapes and waterways) have the largest environmental footprints. It is difficult in that we really don’t know what to do once these high-impact goods and services are identified.

Will a Green Seal, Eco Logo or other certified product help reduce impacts? If so, by how much? What role does conservation or efficiency play in sourcing decisions? For example, shifting from virgin paper of an unknown source to paper from well-managed forests or to recycled content will help, but maybe not as much as a fundamental shift to paperless offices or e-readers. The problem is that we have very little information to help us make these decisions. How many gigs of server space are too many? There must be a point at which selective printing and end-of-life reuse/recycling is less impactful than every useless and forgotten document being stored on an energy hog server forever. The same could be said for the increased material flows associated with e-reader devices, discarded after 18 months, displacing library patronage and second-hand bookstores.

We desperately need new tools for translating the way markets think about and act on green products (usually one issue at a time—carbon OR waste OR wildlife OR chemicals/health—and often only at the time of purchase) into metrics of how products actually impact environmental and human health across multiple impacts and at different stages of a product’s life.

Some of this work is being developed within the NorthStar Initiative at the University of Minnesota. A recent NorthStar discussion paper on the topic, “What is a Greener Choice?” takes a first step in outlining alternatives to one-size-fits-all approaches to apples-to-apples product comparisons. We can’t do full-blown life-cycle analyses (LCAs) on every product in the world, nor should we try. Rather, mechanisms are needed for determining when and where more complex and specialized information might be useful, and where it might actually reduce informed choice.

While we don’t have the answers readily available, what’s exciting is that GSA is asking the hard questions—and it isn’t the only one! Multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on improving data and communications of “green products” are exploding—from the Walmart-initiated Sustainability Consortium to the Keystone Center’s Green Products Roundtable and initiatives emerging out of the Packard Foundation and Brookings Institution.

The GSA roundtable didn’t charter new ground during these early discussions. But it does bring the power of the federal government to the many conversations underway in civil society and the business community. The U.S. government’s voice and pocketbook will help bring additional legitimacy, and I hope clarity, to the Wild West of green products.

This convergence of interests attempting to thoughtfully assess which environmental performance needles can be moved (and by how much) through green market signals is new! It is different from similar governmental efforts of the 1990s, different from the wave of third-party environmental labels of the 1990s and early 2000s, and incredibly important to the future of greening consumerism. For these reasons I am very encouraged.

Tim Smith is a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and director of the IonE's NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

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