Misunderstood Necessity

As school budgets shrink across the U.S., educational product procurers may find themselves struggling to make the right choice between products with fewer upfront costs and minimal return on investment or products with more upfront costs and greater return on investment.

Unfortunately, it is often assumed that sustainable products are consistently under-performing and, therefore, not worth any upfront premiums. This misunderstanding can lead to the purchase and installation of products that have negative impacts on both the planet and the indoor environment in which the products are used. Indeed, value engineering, even when economic times are tough, can come at the expense of product quality, safety and healthfulness. It is therefore critical that educational procurers understand the long-term financial, educational and environmental benefits of choosing sustainable products for their schools.

“The return on investment for using sustainable products is multi-fold,” says Henning Bloech, executive director of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a third-party product certification organization that focuses on product emissions and indoor-air quality. “We’ve just got to think outside the box a bit. In some cases, the ROI is direct and tangible, such as a quantifiable reduction in energy costs. In other cases, the ROI is indirect and not quite as easy to quantify, such as an improved sense of wellbeing among students and staff. But that’s just as significant, if not more significant.”

Below are some examples of the returns on investment that can be had by purchasing products with low chemical emissions, a sustainable attribute focusing on the indoor environment.

Student Health and Productivity
Sustainable products can help create productive educational environments in which students thrive academically and developmentally. For example, products that have been scientifically tested and shown to have low chemical emissions can help improve indoor air quality by reducing student exposure to potentially toxic airborne chemicals, like volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs include known carcinogens, such as formaldehyde and benzene. Research has shown that children who are exposed to VOCs are up to four times more likely to develop asthma — the fastest-growing incurable, chronic childhood disease — compared to children who are not exposed. And, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America, asthma is responsible for more than 14 million missed school days each year. Not surprisingly then, schools with good indoor air quality enjoy higher student test scores, improved academic performance and increased productivity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Student Health and School Funding
But the link between student health and sustainable products goes beyond academic performance: the more healthful a product is, the healthier the indoor environment is; the healthier the indoor environment is, the better students will perform; the better students perform, the more likely a school is to qualify for government funding. Per the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, American public schools receive federal funding based, in large part, on their students’ academic performance: if the schools fail to meet their Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks, they may be required to transfer students to other schools, in turn losing federal dollars that were originally allocated to them. This puts an even greater strain on school budgets. And for charter schools, in particular, their ability to receive federal grants depends largely on whether their students meet certain academic performance criteria. Thus, school funding can indirectly depend on the purchase of sustainable, healthier products.

Teacher Health
Poor indoor air quality, which we know can be caused by chemical off-gassing from products, is linked to numerous short- and long-term illnesses, such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, coughing and asthma. These health conditions can result in missed school days for both students and teachers, compromising the learning and teaching experience.

When teachers are absent, substitute teachers must be hired, which not only costs schools money (in the form of wages, teacher salary and administrative and recruiting costs), but also disrupts the flow of teaching and learning, leading to poorer student performance, according to a 2008 report by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. In fact, according to a 2009 report from Kennesaw State University, the more days a teacher is out of the classroom, the lower his or her students’ score on standardized tests.

Thus, by choosing sustainable, low-emitting products, educational procurers can help improve a school’s indoor air quality, thereby helping reduce teacher absenteeism and, in turn, the expenditures associated with recruiting and hiring substitute teachers.

Education by Example
In addition to beneficial health and environmental impacts, the procurement and use of sustainable products and materials can serve as valuable educational tools, becoming in and of themselves part of the school’s academic curriculum. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools program encourages teachers and school administrators to leverage their schools’ sustainable attributes as part of their students’ core learning regimen.

According to the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, schools built with sustainability in mind can “connect students with curricula in environmental and science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) education…. For example, math students can track and chart utility cost savings, science students can analyze and compare the difference between eco-friendly and traditional cleaning products, and humanities students can debate the impacts communities have on their environments. Every student can benefit from the opportunity for hands-on learning, and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the built environment and natural systems.”

When educational procurers select low-emitting products for their schools, they can stimulate classroom discussions and promote critical thinking on topics like health, science, architecture, engineering and design.

Shaping the Marketplace and Protecting Future Generations
The more sustainable products we purchase for our schools and other buildings, the more opportunities children will have to learn and prosper. And, the greater the demand for sustainable products, the more manufacturers will introduce new sustainable products to the marketplace. This, in turn, will drive up supply and eventually drive down prices, helping a school’s bottom line.

The single biggest investment we as a society can make is to ensure quality education for our children and future generations. We must therefore do what we can to help protect the health of both the planet and the people on it. Choosing sustainable, healthier products for our nation’s schools is a great place to start.

Rachel Belew is the Public Relations and communications manager at the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a third-party organization that certifies products for low chemical emissions in an effort to improve indoor air quality. She can be reached at rbelew@greenguard.org.