Defining Environmentally Preferable Products

What is an "environmentally preferable" product?

At least two federal agencies - the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - are developing definitions following President Bill Clinton's mandate late last year setting guidelines for purchasing such products.

The EPA suggests three approaches to defining "environmentally preferable," including:

* An "environmentally-aware" purchasing checklist, such as the one in Minnesota, to provide public employees with a method to incorporate environmentally aware thinking into their purchasing decisions;

* The Canadian Standards Association's list of broad environmental management principles for its federal agencies who want to buy environmentally preferable products; and

* Kentucky's information data-base on products available for government purchase including their environmental attributes.

The agency will use core values such as key environmental attributes for targeted products while stressing behavior that achieves environmental improvement in as many life cycle stages as possible. This covers the product's design, raw material and energy extraction and natural resource use throughout manufacture, processing, distribution and maintenance to ultimate disposal.

The product categories where "environmentally preferable" principles might apply could be based on volume purchased and the product risk. The agency might work with the GSA and the Department of Defense to identify environmentally preferable products in their supply catalogs. There is no comprehensive certification program, and products currently highlighted as being "green" in the government catalogs are often certified by the manufacturer.

GSA is encouraging suppliers to identify products with environmentally beneficial claims. Environmental considerations should be part of procurement, GSA said in its interim rule. The agency notes several acts that call on federal agencies to consider waste reduction and energy-efficiency in their purchasing practices, including the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Energy Policy Act of 1992, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976.

The GSA also pointed out that environmental purchasing considerations were reemphasized in several executive orders, including two that require the agency to establish environmentally and energy-efficient contract clauses.

By definition, energy-efficient office equipment provides equivalent or better performance and value to users, but uses less energy.

Recovered materials are defined as waste material and byproducts that have been recovered or diverted from solid waste, not including materials generated from and reused within an original manufacturing process.

Under the GSA rule, bidders are encouraged to identify supplies that contain recovered materials and other environmental attributes, such as those noted as "green" in EPA procurement guidelines. These products would be degradable, ozone-safe, recyclable, contain low-volatile organic content compounds or contribute to source reduction.

However, bidders who are offering "green" products must verify that they are environmentally preferable by:

* participating in a federal agency sponsored program like EPA's Energy Star Computer program;

* verifying by an independent organization that specializes in certifying such claims; or

* possession of competent and reliable evidence.

Industry reaction was swift. At a recent hearing, George Buchanan of Union Carbide Corporation told EPA officials, "As a general observation, EPA should avoid and reject any approach that seeks to establish a list of 'environmentally preferred' products or services. Such an approach would be dangerously simplistic."

Ralph Engel, president of the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, urged EPA to standardize environmental product information, but avoid developing a list of "environmental winners or losers." He said that the guidelines should not be rigid or utilize lists, noting this could freeze "normal economic factors."

There was widespread agreement on the usefulness of the lifecycle analysis (LCA) - consideration of all environmental impacts of a product from its conception to its disposal - but there were concerns as to how much reliance should be placed on this tool.

Michael Levy, director of energy and materials policy at the American Forest and Paper Association, said LCA should be "one tool in the decision-making," but should not be reduced to one number. He said EPA's guidelines should be easy to apply and not require third-party involvement.

Arthur Weissman, vice president of standards and planning for Green Seal, an environmental certification organization, urged EPA to "resist the temptation to let individual procurement officials make individual decisions based on LCA information." Determining what is environmentally preferable "is not a decision that can be readily made by a lay person or even an expert in a short period of time," Weissman said, adding that "value judgments and policy calls are inevitably involved."

Gerald Pflug, president of the Soap and Detergent Association, said the guidelines "should not allow subjective criteria to be interjected into the procurement process." He said performance and cost factors need to be weighed along with environmental attributes in purchasing decisions. He called for the guidelines based on "established human and environmental risk assessment."

"Whatever you do, it's got be tailored to local applications of federal law," noted Laurent Hourcle, associate professor of law at the National Law Center in Washington, D.C. He also noted that local conditions need to be taken into account, such as the ability to recycle a given material in a given locality.

"We endorse the EPA's goal to craft guidance that will promote the 'continuous improvement in the environmental performance of goods and services' and that will evolve along with our scientific knowledge and the needs of consumers," said Al St. Clair, Procter & Gamble Co., who testified at the EPA hearing.

"But checklists generally fail to recognize the complexity of environmental issues ... EPA can promote the continuous improvement of products through guidance that relies on information sharing and factual claim support rather than these rigid checklists," he said.

For more information on the GSA rule, contact Paul Linfield, Office of GSA Acquisition Policy, at (202) 501-1224.