A Roadmap to Sustainability Purchasing

trends in education


The beginning of the calendar year is a good time to do some housecleaning and add some green purchasing policies, which are an easy and powerful way to create benefits for your school. The principles of green purchasing can easily increase your school’s sustainability when they are incorporated into school purchasing specs and policies.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainable Higher Education (AASHE) sets criteria for green campuses under the AASHE STARS program, which can be applied to K-12 schools. You can use their requirements as a roadmap to sustainability; the list of Operations (OP) credits will give you a good framework for green purchasing. You can make a big difference when you choose products like electronics, cleaning products (such as cleaners, paper towels, and bathroom tissue), and office paper.

An emphasis on local items and services reduces transport needs and strengthens the local community, while environmentally-responsible food and beverages and low impact meals can reduce the footprint of food services. Less frequent purchases — paints, insulation, windows, doors, furniture, and carpets — are important for the sustainability of building operations and maintenance or design and construction.

With a little more thought, your school can use a life-cycle cost analysis to estimate the lifetime cost of ownership for items — especially those that use energy or water. The total amount of money you end up paying for energy, water or waste removal is something that you are probably tracking already. Even though these dollar figures are only an indirect measure of environmental impact, they will give you a good idea of the actual environmental impact.

Life-cycle costing means looking at costs incurred while the item is in-use and when it’s disposed of, rather than looking only at the purchase price. For example, when buying a refrigerator, you might decide to choose the cheapest model in your size. Or you could look at the electricity used over the lifetime of the fridge, and at the cost of disposal of any hazardous materials when you get rid of it. Very often, the cheaper product will end up costing you more money and causing more environmental impacts in the long run.

The initial cost of an appliance or building is only half of what you will pay over its entire lifetime. Once installed, the monetary and environmental cost of their operations will now be locked in for the next few years or even decades. Your purchase and design decisions will determine heating and cooling, lighting, water consumption, repainting, and other maintenance and upkeep.

When designing a building, adding energy efficient technologies (thermal insulation, low-emissivity windows, window overhangs and daylighting controls) will increase the initial cost, but can result in a 20 to 40 percent reduction in energy use. This improved efficiency will, in turn, yield further savings because the heating and cooling needs of the energy-efficient design would require smaller HVAC systems. Harvard, Stanford, Energy.Gov, NIST, Forest Service, and many others have guidelines, calculators, software and other tools to implement life-cycle costing.

Another way you can extend the impact of your purchases and contracts is by making it clear to your business partners that you expect them to have responsible environmental practices, employee wages and work conditions.

It’s very easy to implement the same green purchasing policies that leading green colleges and universities use to meet the requirements of the STARS program. Following their example will save you money and improve the health and performance of students and staff.

About the Author

Daniel Pedersen, Ph.D., is the vice president of Science and Standards at Green Seal, which identifies environmentally responsible products and services and provides public education for creating a more sustainable world. He also serves on AASHE's Advisory Council. For more information about Green Seal, visit