4 Tips to Help Procurement Prioritize Sustainable Products on a Budget

Help protect the environment while reducing costs; here’s how.

Procurement, Sustainability, Purchasing

File this one under “outdated myth”: If you want to buy environmentally responsible office products and equipment, you’re always going to have to spend more. 

That just isn’t true anymore, says Robert Kuhn of Kuhn Associates Sustainability Advisors, an expert in supply chain sustainability.  

Sometimes the sustainable option costs more upfront but less over the life of the item. Sometimes it costs the same as the less environmentally friendly option. In some cases, it’s even cheaper — some recycled commodities are inexpensive right now because of surplus supply, Kuhn points out.  

Today’s business leaders are considering a triple bottom line, he says: a balanced view of economic, environmental and social performance. 

“Over the next 20 years, the sustainability aspects of procurement will become core to the procurement function in the same way that quality has been and that price has been,” he says. That evolution is expected to accelerate as a younger generation of workers moves into leadership positions because millennials are widely thought to be more committed to socially responsible buying. 

Here are some tips for prioritizing sustainable products while staying on budget. 

1. Establish written policies for buying products and selecting suppliers.

  • Develop criteria for how products will be vetted, selected and purchased. The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council has resources for procurement professionals who are members, says Kuhn, a member of the organization’s Strategic Advisory Committee. He recommends identifying which sustainability issues you will address — water use and the amount of recycled content in products, for example — and what percentage of your suppliers you’re going to cover, at least initially.  
  • Write a supplier code of conduct to ensure suppliers understand your goals. This can include details, Kuhn says, such as, “We will not buy from a company that breaks environmental laws.” Have suppliers sign the code of conduct. 
  • Get leadership on board. This step is crucial to being effective. “If you can get the policy signed by someone with a ‘C’ in their title, or a VP, it’s a sign that the company as a whole has bought into the policy,” Kuhn says.  

2. Do your homework. 

  • Know your suppliers. For example, when evaluating potential or current suppliers, check to see if they have been fined for violating environmental regulations or if there’s anything in the public record, such as media reports, about bad behavior. 
  • Look for certifications that indicate the product or supplier values sustainability. Kuhn says a few important ones are FSC, or the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures products come from responsibly managed forests; the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense, which designates water-efficient products; and Energy Star-designated appliances, lighting, computers and more. Kuhn also recommends choosing a supplier that uses a freight carrier on EPA’s SmartWay list; SmartWay carriers strive to reduce transportation-related emissions. 
  • Calculate what an item will cost over its life cycle. If a standard incandescent lightbulb is $1 apiece and the LED lightbulb is $3, the old way would have called for buying the cheaper one, Kuhn says. “Run some quick numbers and ask, how much are we going to save on electricity if we use the LED instead of the other one?” he says. You’re likely to recoup the extra $2 paid in a short time through lower energy costs. 

3. Keep up a dialogue with suppliers. 

  • Remind suppliers that sustainability is important to you. Big companies with hefty contracts can have the most leverage with suppliers, but even smaller customers should make their environmental intentions clear. Tell your suppliers what you expect in terms of environmental responsibility, and be specific. This may mean giving feedback on issues such as packaging; if something is packaged inefficiently, wasting money and cardboard, speak up. 
  • Include any environmental or social priorities in contracts and purchase orders. This will ensure these issues stay top of mind for both your colleagues and the supplier. 

4. Recycle, reuse and focus on energy.  

  • Buy paper that is at least 30 percent recycled content, Kuhn advises. Paper that is 100 percent recycled content is ideal. (And look for the FSC certification mentioned in No. 2.) 
  • Look for a supplier that carries recycled printer toner cartridges (labeled “remanufactured”) or toner cartridges that can be recycled. Not all printers accept recycled toner cartridges, so check first to make sure your machines do. 
  • Opt for reusable or compostable plates, cups and cutlery in the office kitchen or cafeteria. 
  • Think about whether the items you supply to the company are recyclable or can be donated after your organization is done with them. “You have to start thinking differently about stuff and what happens to it after we’ve used it,” Kuhn says. “You, as the procurement person, are the first function that can get it right. If you buy something that has no chance of being reused or recycled, you’re part of the problem.” 

But by adopting sustainable priorities, you can be part of the solution, for your organization and the earth.