At over 11,000 feet high and more than 100 miles away, Mount Hood's rugged, snow-laden slopes popped out on the horizon as though illuminated by the ever-popular black lights of the 1960s. Even to a five-year old, it was a captivating sight. Today, some 40 years later, the air of the Pacific Northwest has lost some of its clarity, and the sleeping volcano appears slightly less resplendent, as though obscured by cataract-clouded lenses.

I was the youngest of eight siblings — a brood capable of generating as much dirty laundry as a small village. Our clothes hamper read, "This Side Up," and was fashioned out of a discarded, large, corrugated cardboard appliance box. From our homemade swing set, my view of Mount Hood was frustratingly obstructed by my mother's abundant and very public display of fresh laundry, meticulously pinned to our outdoor clothes line.

To my dismay, our clothes line was no ordinary domestic device. It was a conspicuously placed, multi-strand monolith that ran parallel to our swing set and stretched more than 30 feet in length. The four, industrial-strength, aqua-painted, cast-iron posts supporting the lines were buried deep in four-and-a-half feet of gravel and concrete. It was of little concern to me that my mother cautiously fed the daily mounds of laundry through our vintage Maytag wringer washer and painstakingly pinned each garment on the expansive line to dry and conserve a few kilowatts. As I carelessly swung and watched her busily tend to her work, I dreamed of catapulting from the weathered wooden seat and "flying" to the snowy peak that luminesced in the distance.

My mother received her first new, store-bought coat when she was in the ninth grade. Hand-me-downs, waste reduction and sustainability were not foreign to her. She didn't know anything about energy — efficient retrofits, alternate fuels, greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds, phosphates, phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy-metal leeching, chlorofluorocarbons, the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or carbon footprints. But she did know this: how to make one tub of bath water clean four dirty bodies; how to turn fabric scraps and worn-out clothing fragments into quilts, doll clothes, sock monkeys, and rag rugs; and how to reuse and recycle the highly coveted Sears catalog. "End-of-life considerations" pertained to what she would do with Grandma's remains — not cradle-to-grave responsibilities of hazardous waste.

Ironically, my mother didn't subscribe to the theory that because your budget was lean you couldn't be "green." She, and millions like her, knew the value in water reclamation, natural soil enhancements, waste reduction, rationing, reusing, composting and alternative fuels. Simplicity and conservation equated to surviving — economically and physically.

Some might say we have made tremendous strides in my mother's lifetime. Thanks to industrialization, lean manufacturing and statistical process control, "superior" goods are now produced, at an accelerated rate. They are built to last precisely until the expiration of their limited warranties — no longer than, no less than — as evidenced by the surge in popularity of extended warranties and maintenance agreements. Computers and consumer electronic devices are obsolete from the moment they are manufactured. Our ability to streamline manufacturing efficiently translates into an exponential growth of toxins and industrial byproducts in our waste stream.

According to the New American Dream Web site (January 2008): "The National Safety Council predicts that in the U.S. between 315 million and 680 million computers will be put to rest within the next few years. The waste will contain more than 4 billion pounds of plastic, 1 billion pounds of lead, 1.9 million pounds of cadmium, 1.2 million pounds of chromium and nearly 400,000 pounds of mercury. Less than 10 percent of outdated computer products are refurbished or recycled."

Government procurement represents 18 percent of the Gross National Product, and public procurement professionals are in a unique position to impose eco-friendly requirements that influence manufacturing trends in a way that may help reverse the swing of the global-warming pendulum. Specifications in public agencies' solicitation documents may incorporate the agency's social responsibility policies, "Green Initiatives," "Gatekeeper Policies," take-back options, Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool Project (EPEAT) standards, Energy Star preferences and other sustainable practices.

I declared environmental health as my college major during a time when gas-guzzling behemoths were the norm and industrial toxins were clandestinely released into the local streams and rivers. Unfortunately, my requisite and perfunctory calculus and chemistry courses were not predictive of my future success in the field. By default, I found myself on a career path in public procurement.

"But wait! It's not too late to make a difference," incessantly whispers the little voice inside my head. Not only can I make a difference, but I am ethically obligated to make a difference. My public agency entrusts me to employ best practices in the performance of my duties. As a condition of my membership in the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, I subscribe to NIGP's Code of Ethics, of which one principle "…believes in the dignity and worth of the service rendered by the organization, and the societal responsibilities assumed as a trusted public servant."

My unrelenting efforts may not directly save Arctic polar bears from extinction or prevent the unsustainable harvesting of tropical rain forests. Nonetheless, I have an obligation: to utilize my skills and talents in the pursuit of best value; to recognize the implication that my public agency's contracting activities have on political, social, economical and ecological considerations; and to strive for a better, more sustainable world within the framework of a heavily regulated environment and rapidly changing ecosphere. I am an instrument of change, and if I ever doubt my ability to generate ripples in tranquil pools, I leave my cell phone on in a crowded movie theater.

In many ways, my career in public procurement has become an extension of my childhood. My freshly laundered unmentionables, suspended in plain view beside a busy four-lane highway, have simply been replaced by sunshine laws, public scrutiny and governing bodies. Mom was right. Eventually, it does all come out in the wash. My grandchildren may never swing to the cerulean sky and see the grandeur of Mount Hood through the same lens as I saw it. With an exerted effort by all, however, they may have the opportunity to continue to enjoy the precious natural resources and wonders of our planet.

"We do make a difference — one way or the other," says Stephen Covey. "We are responsible for the impact of our lives. Whatever we do with whatever we have, we leave behind us a legacy for those who follow."

About the author

Eileen Miller, CPPO, C.P.M., is purchasing management analyst of Chemeketa Community College, Salem, Ore. Email her at mile@chemeketa.edu. This article is based on the winner of the NIGP's 2009 Ethics Essay Contest.