Sustainable Purchasing for Schools

Sustainable Purchasing for Schools


When watching almost any newscast, the topic of school safety is sure to come up. This is with good reason, as the threat of in-school violence has reared its ugly head again and again over the past few years. Yet, there is also an aspect of school safety that is rarely mentioned on the news, but is equally important: the environmental health and safety of schools.

While creating a healthy, environmentally sound school environment sounds simple in theory, there can be roadblocks such as a general lack of information, which make the task more difficult. Luckily for schools and administrators, Healthy Schools Network, Inc., (HSN) is making the task much easier. HSN is a not-for-profit group dedicated to being the voice for environmental health in schools and a recognized leader in the healthy schools movement.

As a recognized leader in the field of green products, HSN provides tools for parents, teachers and administrators to use when planning for and evaluating the overall health of their schools. The latest resource being offered by HSN is the Healthy Purchasing for Healthy Schools, a guidance memo that provides a host of tools and resources for administrators, teachers and parents concerned with making healthy purchasing decisions that are good for students and the school environment.


The guidance memo is broken down into product categories, each containing a special set of tips and considerations for greener buys. It begins with a broad look at some ways to keep schools cleaner and greener and then moves into specifics.

The memo also includes a host of additional resources for shopping and purchasing. Some of the sections are given a closer look below.

“Products used to clean and maintain schools today often contain toxic chemicals. Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use today, only a few have been individually tested for toxicity.” This fact, as quoted from the guide, is a great reason to begin researching greener supplies and cleaning alternatives. Furthermore, “reducing toxic chemicals in products used in schools benefits children, teachers and custodial staff, particularly those with asthma and environmental sensitivities,” notes the introduction of the memo.

While no one will argue the fact that healthier schools are a good thing, there is still a financial question that must be considered. What will all of these nontoxic, healthy products do to my budget? This is normally the first question that is posed by school decision makers. The truth is, that in many cases, going nontoxic can save a school money, as the guidance memo points out: “Purchasing environmentally preferable products, equipment, and services that have a reduced impact on human health and on the environment can help create healthier learning environments and may not cost more or may save money.”


Once these financial benefits are outlined, the memo goes on to take a closer look at simple steps to purchase greener, including how to properly disinfect and update and maintain equipment. One of the quickest ways to go green, according to the memo, is to take a closer look at your office and computing supplies. “Computers and other office equipment can contain heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) and toxic flame retardants, as well as other hazardous chemical ingredients that can expose workers when these products are manufactured or handled at the end of their useful life,” according to the report.

Using the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool standards is one of the easiest ways to ensure you are purchasing a greener product, points out the memo. “From fewer toxins in manufacturing to efficient operation including ENERGY STAR requirements EPEAT-registered products offer reduced environmental impacts across their life cycle.”

Some other great ways to keep things healthy and green in regards to technology is to recycle unused laptops and desktops and to turn off computers to save energy, notes the memo. Computers and other technological tools are an important part of any school setting, and as the guide illustrates, when used effectively they can help to foster a healthy sustainable environment.

The guidance memo also covers one of the most critical areas to any green purchasing plan: walls and ceilings. Every school has them and purchasing green paint and primers for them is a must when trying to create a healthy environment. “Studies by the EPA indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor pollutant levels. The EPA considers indoor air quality to be one of the top five hazards to human health. Paint fumes can be a significant contributor to indoor air pollution,” confirms the memo.

Among other tips, the memo recommends using third-party standards to evaluate paints and to assess whether or not their containers will be recyclable after use. Many of the same guidelines can be used when evaluating art supplies and materials. The memo says to avoid solvents, lead and other products that can turn to dust and be inhaled. It also notes that you should “read labels and follow precautions regarding fumes or ventilation,” in order to ensure you are purchasing a green product.


Furniture is present in almost every classroom and needs to receive careful attention before any purchase is made. This is because “furniture can contain highly toxic materials such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants, fluorinated stain resistant compounds and other harmful chemicals. Offgassing (the release of chemicals into the air) from furniture can cause headaches; nausea; burning of the eyes, nose, and throat; skin rashes; wheezing; asthma attacks and chest tightness.”

Some of the ways to mitigate such health concerns include buying furniture made only of whole wood, glass or metal and to always avoid furniture made of vinyl and PVC, says HSN. Also, to ensure student health, aim to purchase tables and chairs that have not been treated with any kind of paint and/or stain. Following these, along with the other HSN recommendations in the memo help ensure that you are purchasing only the healthiest classroom furniture available. The memo also includes several other useful health and safety tips when it comes to furniture and facilities.


One most important, and often overlooked aspects covered in the memo is using cooperative purchasing in a way that can help you find nontoxic, healthy products like paint and computers. There are several agencies included in the memo that can help you to navigate the world of healthy school products. Each organization has their own tools and recommendations when it comes to finding products that meet your specific needs.

Having a good source of information can be invaluable to the green purchasing process, according to the memo. “Most, if not all, states have established cooperative purchasing programs that allow public schools to utilize their price agreements for goods and services. Purchasing on state contracts can save schools a tremendous amount of time and money, eliminating the two most often cited barriers to green purchasing.”

If not working with a state agency to make cooperative purchases, the memo recommends implementing a district wide policy when it comes to healthy purchasing. “Public schools are public agencies and must follow state and local policies regarding how to issue requests for bids for various products, services and equipment. Make sure your specifications are objective, verifiable and consistent,” it notes.

Begin by outlining a needs assessment and look at who will be using the product(s) you are thinking about purchasing. Next, move into a more specific conversation about environmental requirements for the product. “In developing your specifications, you will be identifying and prioritizing these requirements into a biddable document,” according to HSN.

Going green and healthy isn’t a process without confusion or speed bumps. But with HSN’s guidance memo, the questions are easier to ask and the process greatly streamlined. To read through all product categories and for additional information, obtain the full guidance memo at

This article originally appeared in the issue of .