Introduction: The purchase or exchange of goods between two parties has been historically based upon price and quality, where both parties receive maximal benefit. Such exchanges in the past decade however, have changed due to stresses on the planet because of resource extraction, environmental degradation, and political purchasing power resulting in an unfair distribution of environmental costs (i.e. pollution), typically incurred by disenfranchised groups across the globe without the ability to “pay” for relief from such costs (Boyce 2007).
Today, purchasing goods typically involves some level of recycled materials as well as a concern for the labor used to create the goods or provide the services. In a sustainable situation, goods created are made from recycled and renewable resources using renewable energy, if applicable. The people who make these good should be working in a safe, pollution-free environment and should be paid a fair wage. The materials going into sustainably produced goods typically are:
- High content from post-consumer recycled materials
- Low embodied energy (energy consumed to extract, manufacture, distribute and dispose)
- Energy efficient
- Durable and/or repairable
- Produced in an environmentally- and socially-sustainable manner
From the demand side, life-cycle analysis should be considered, to choose products that are environmentally preferable based on predetermined criteria (Curran 2001). Developing a thorough list of guidelines for environmentally preferable purchasing is key to an institution’s success*. Numerous colleges and universities have developed their own criteria for environmentally preferable purchasing based on individual state standards or using a software program that encompasses several predetermined criteria based on national standards**.
Equally important is consideration of embodied energy, or the total direct and indirect energy required to produce goods or services (Costanza 1980). Embodied energy assumes that primary economic factors such as land, labor, and capital are not independent of one another; these are typically thought of as independent factors by traditional methods of valuation. Through input-output analysis, a truer measure of economic value can be determined for individual goods or services, which incorporates the energy required to produce such goods or services (the input) and the energy derived or produced from the product or service (the output). For example, in the American food system, 10 calories are put into the agro-ecosystem to produce one calorie of food. Rather, the amount of energy put into producing and transporting food to individuals is significantly higher than the actual energy an individual derives from the food. So, if one were to compare apples to apples, an apple produced in Wisconsin and eaten by a Wisconsinite has much lower embodied energy, and thus a lower carbon footprint, than an apple that is produced in Washington and eaten by the same Wisconsinite. It is in the best interest of an institution to incorporate all of these criteria when making truly sustainable purchasing decisions.
History as of 2007: At the present time, the campus purchasing process is quite de-centralized, with departments and individuals making independent purchasing decisions. Although there are proscriptive state purchasing guidelines, including directions on which vendors are to be utilized for specific products, there is no major emphasis on sustainable purchasing.
a. The following items are currently purchased with recycled content in accordance with the state
* Toilet Paper
* Copier paper
* Computer Monitors
* Photo Copiers
b. Over the past several years, incandescent lights have been replaced with compact fluorescents
fixtures in many of the Residence Halls.
c. Custodial Services began purchasing environmentally safer cleaning chemicals in 2006.
d. Food vendors, campus retail stores, and Dining Services have made some sustainable products
(e.g., fair trade, organic, local, cruelty-free, etc.) available for sale and special events.
Since the previous plan: While green and socially just products have been made available to the campus community in convenience locations (The University Bookstore and the Corner Convenience Store), the direct purchasing policies upholding these sustainable purchases has not been overtly addressed. The purchasing of paper made from 100% recycled material illustrates the problem of not having a clear purchasing policy. It was announced in UW Oshkosh Today in 2011 that the campus was buying paper made with 100% recycled content. That purchasing procedure continued for a 1.5 years, but a decision was eventually made to return to the 30% recycled content in high volume labs with little or no explanation.
The campus has committed itself to being a Fair Trade university (the first in the nation); still a formal purchasing plan that targets sustainability goals has not been developed. Numerous individuals from across campus departments purchase a myriad of items, but there is not a single document that directs their purchasing goals to sustainable options. This is also not monitored by the campus’ purchasing officials.
Although the campus is somewhat restricted in its purchasing behaviors by State and UW System guidelines, the campus will have to increasingly consider embodied energy and life cycle analysis in campus purchasing decisions.
A formal UW Oshkosh Purchasing Plan steered by a purchasing work group would better serve the campus’ mission of upholding sustainability through purchasing.
*See University of Colorado – Boulder’s guidelines for environmentally preferable purchasing.
**Such as BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability), which provides in-depth criteria for green building materials.