Challenges Facing Green Procurement

As is the case with every government policy, green procurement faces a number of challenges to successful implementation. Given the partisan dynamics that surround any governmental program, green procurement will always face political challenges. In certain political circles, the mere word "green" can conjure up images of environmental extremism. In the case of green procurement, such images would seem to be unwarranted. Indeed, there is some evidence that green procurement has become a bipartisan commitment in the U.S. [39]. Still, some elected officials, and their governments, will be more "environmentally friendly" than others. For example, Santa Monica's highprofile green procurement program hinges in part on a liberal interpretation of the "lowest responsible bidder" clause: the Environmental Programs Division uses the "responsible bidder" language as a gateway to considering environmental criteria. For some time now, the city council has accepted this broad interpretation, but that does not mean it will always be the case [25]. Even where green procurement is explicitly mandated, implementation can be affected by the priorities and enthusiasm of the administration: if an administration places a low priority on green procurement and does not enthusiastically endorse it, then implementation will be uneven at best. The challenge for green procurement proponents is to garner the support of political leaders, which often requires educating them on the benefits of green procurement and the costs—both pecuniary and environmental—of doing nothing. Still, the vagaries of the political system will always have an effect on the success of government green procurement.

Of course politics is not the only challenge to green procurement: A number of practical problems must also be addressed. For example, in the aforementioned NIGP survey [35], respondents were asked to "indicate any challenges/barriers that have limited your efforts in purchasing green goods and/or services." The items indicated most often were inadequate awareness (46.1%), conflicting priorities (44%), decentralization of decision making/purchasing (37.6%), and inadequate guidance (35.5%). Findings like these suggest the importance of raising the awareness of green procurement and its benefits among purchasers and end-users, clarifying the priorities and values to be achieved through public procurement, and dealing effectively with the realities of a decentralized world of administrative decision making.

First, to be successful the practical problems of raising awareness of green procurement and its benefits and correcting misinformation and misconceptions must be addressed. These challenges have not gone unnoticed. The White House Task Force on Recycling, for example, recently identified several common green procurement myths and offered responses that attempted to debunk them [36]:

■ Myth #1 (Performance): The first myth is that recycled products are inferior. Most recycled products meet the same technical and quality specifications as their virgin material counterparts and may actually provide superior characteristics.

■ Myth #2 (Price): It is untrue that recycled products cost more. At one time, before there were ample numbers of suppliers and products, recycled items may have cost more. Today, however, recycled products such as paper may actually be cheaper than their virgin counterparts. In most cases, recycled products are at least competitively priced.

■ Myth #3 (Availability): The third myth is that recycled products are not readily available. American industry has responded to government and industry demand for recycled products. More and more products are being made available in greater quantities every day.

Importantly, myths like these do not exist solely in the minds of end-users and casual observers. Indeed, green procurement must work to overcome skepticism within the public procurement community. For example, NASPO still pejoratively refers to environmentally preferable purchasing policies as one of several "restraints on competition" [28]. Their position on environmentally preferable purchasing and other procurement preferences (e.g., in-state, minority-owned, or small business preferences) aimed at achieving socioeconomic goals is clear: "Despite nearly two decades of experience with these programs, there is no substantial body of data to indicate whether their often laudable goals are being met and, thus, worth the cost of government of maintaining them, included losses due to restricted competition" [28].

Debunking myths, ameliorating skepticism, and raising awareness requires constant effort on the part of agencies and green product users to tout the successes they enjoy through their green procurement programs. One obvious approach is to produce and publicize green procurement success stories. Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that green procurement can provide products and services government needs and that it can actually save money in both the short term (through lower product costs, such as with recycled paper) and the long term (through lower life cycle costs). Federal agencies are required by EO 13101 to promote their programs, both internally and externally, so as to spread the word about green procurement's benefits and successes. Strategies mentioned above like vendor fairs and educational outreach also hold promise for raising awareness about green procurement.

Conflicting procurement priorities and values present a second broad challenge to green procurement. In making procurement decisions, policy makers and procurement officials often struggle to balance traditional "procurement goals" (e.g., efficiency, economy, performance, fairness) with "non-procurement goals" (e.g., environmental preferences) [7]. The challenge can be daunting:

"... [P]urchasing agents are increasingly called upon to balance the dynamic tension between competing socioeconomic objectives, provide a consistence [sic] agency face to suppliers of goods and services, satisfy the requirements of fairness, equity and transparency, and at the same time, maintain an overarching focus on maximizing competition while maintaining economy and efficiency" [8].

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this challenge. The appropriate weight afforded environmental factors relative to other procurement factors will depend upon jurisdictions' priorities and political climate. Ideally, procurement officials could show that environmental goals do not necessarily detract from traditional procurement goals. For example, using life cycle cost assessments, it may be possible to show that environmentally preferable products meet government's procurement needs while maximizing economy, especially over the long run. Some help also may be provided in this regard as governments and third-party nonprofits like Green Seal develop product standards and specifications and technical tools that clarify the tradeoffs associated between green and traditional products. Green Seal, for example, has initiated a "Greening Your Government Program" that includes specific recommendations on environmentally preferable products based upon performance criteria and life-cycle costs assessments. Another tool, developed jointly by the White House Task Force on Recycling, the U.S. Postal Service, EPA, and Environmental Defense, is the "Paper Calculator." The calculator allows users to compare the life cycle environmental impacts of paper made with different levels of post-consumer recycled content. The calculator can be accessed at the OFEE's website: recycled/calculat.htm. Yet another tool, as mentioned previously, is NIST's "BEES" software for determining life cycle costs of various products. Finally, the EPA has developed several cleaning product "decision wizards" which are designed to help users select environmentally preferable products based upon attributes selected and weighted by the user (see epp/cleaners/select/matrix.htm). When combined with clearer guidance by procurement officials and policy makers on the values to be maximized in procurement decisions, the continued development of decision making tools such as these hold promise for the meeting the challenge of multiple and, at times, conflicting procurement priorities.

The third and perhaps biggest, practical challenge to successful green procurement is associated with public administration's current emphasis on decentralization. Decentralization of decision-making is a defining feature of the so-called "new public management" (NPM) that has spread across the globe over roughly the last 15 years. The challenge is in ensuring that lower-level governmental actors empowered with procurement authority are aware of green procurement policies and the benefits of green products and services. These newly empowered purchasers may not know about existing green procurement programs and obligations and/or they may subscribe to common green procurement myths. Either way, decentralization can potentially undermine green procurement success.

The problems associated with decentralization are exacerbated by other procurement reform efforts that streamline purchasing processes. Recognizing the administrative costs associated with formal procurement processes, many jurisdictions have raised their dollar thresholds for purchases requiring formal bidding. Concomitantly, a growing number of governments have adopted purchasing cards ("p-cards," for short). P-cards are used in much the same way as a credit card, thereby facilitating efficient procurement transactions. When coupled with decentralization, these changes mean that growing numbers of government employees have discretion to make substantial purchases using methods designed to facilitate the purchasing process.

To ensure that this discretion is exercised responsibly and in accordance with green procurement objectives, central procurement agencies, green procurement project teams, and/or green procurement advocates must undertake concerted efforts to educate purchasers. An advisable approach is to require formal training—including training on environmental preferences—for all individuals who have purchasing authority. Governments may also wish to create web-based tools that can be accessed as needed. The EPA, for example, has created a web-based training tool designed to introduce green procurement principles and to teach purchasing agents how to apply them (see http://www. For its part, the OFEE has published specific guidance to federal employees on using p-cards to buy green products (see Another approach would be to require purchasers to use the government's central purchasing stores or contracts. If these central sources stock and publicize the availability of green products, then the likelihood that individual purchasers will use them increases. Whatever the specific method, the point is that contemporary administrative approaches have decentralized and streamlined government procurement, thereby necessitating training and education if green procurement's objectives are to be realized.

Finally, a chapter in a Handbook of Globalization and the Environment would be incomplete if it did not mention the challenge green procurement faces in an increasingly global environment. In particular, certain policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO) may pose a direct challenge to government green procurement efforts. In particular, the WTO's Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) prohibits obstacles to international trade that stem from government purchasing polices [9]. As Motavalli and Harkinson [9] argue, "If interpreted strictly, the agreement could dismantle almost all government progress on green purchasing and effectively ban procurement of many environmentally preferable goods." This possibility stems from GPA language that forbids purchasers from considering how products were manufactured when making their purchasing decisions. Meeting this global challenge could require efforts to "green" WTO's policies or, more radically, to limit the organization's role altogether. Since environmental sustainability is a global concern, it may make the most sense to utilize global mechanisms like the WTO and its GPA to incorporate widely shared preferences for green procurement. For this to occur, WTO members must work cooperatively, recognizing their collective responsibility for ensuring environmental sustainability. That said, recent research suggests that major trade agreements like the GPA may not create the serious barriers to green procurement that were originally feared [39].

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