Government agencies looking to buy greener products and services are examining new tools to provide greater flexibility to define and identify greener choices. GoodGuide, which was recently purchased by UL Environment, collects publicly available environmental information on more than 175,000 products. Government purchasers are beginning to experiment with ways to use the information to make greener purchasing decisions.

Traditional environmental standards such as those developed by Green Seal and UL Environment (including the EcoLogo and GREENGUARD standards also owned by UL Environment) provide government purchasers with a binary decision point - products are either certified as meeting the relevant environmental standard or not.

GoodGuide and other big data-driven solutions such as Greencurement and the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry allow government purchasers to review more detailed information and make additional distinctions among the products. More data also makes it possible for different organizations with different definitions of green to identify greener products using a common data source to identify products meeting their unique needs.

The State of California, for example, focuses on different environmental considerations than Georgia. The City of San Francisco defines green differently than Kalamazoo, Mich. All of them, however, can base purchasing decisions on information from a common data repository.

GoodGuide and other similar approaches make it possible for each entity to define its own environmental requirements and quickly identify products meeting those requirements.

Standards make green purchasing easier

Back in 1999 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was evaluating bids for greener cleaning products, it received boxes and boxes of hard copy information from suppliers claiming to provide greener cleaning products. The Commonwealth had requested information on more than a dozen different environmental criteria such as aquatic toxicity, pH, biodegradability, and the results of eye and skin irritability tests. Reviewing and comparing all of the information proved incredibly challenging.

To avoid the challenge of wading through reams of data for future solicitations, Massachusetts and hundreds of other government purchasing professionals began requiring cleaning products to be certified to the Green Seal or EcoLogo standards.

Requiring certification drastically simplifies the solicitation process, but there are several challenges with this approach:

  • All certified products are treated as equally good. While this is true for all standards and certifications, it does not make it easy to compare products to see which of the certified products is "greener."
  • Standards and certifications are not available for all of the products and services governments buy.
  • Traditional environmental standards need to be updated on a regular basis because scientific understanding of the risks and benefits of various materials, chemistries, and technologies changes. Not all environmental standards, however, are updated as frequently as needed.

Big data can make green purchasing easier

Environmental data management tools like GoodGuide (goodguide.com), Greencurement (greencurement.com), or the EPEAT registry (epeat.net) provide purchasers with the ability to compare products based on a variety of environmental data points. They permit purchasers to identify and prioritize the environmental features they care most about and use those preferences to identify products meeting their requirements.

Big data solutions also make it possible for government purchasers to have near-instantaneous information about the latest environmental benefits and concerns of their purchasing specifications. There is no need to wait for standards to be updated. Purchasing specifications can be quickly updated based on the latest information.

Had this technology been available in 1999 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was initially seeking greener cleaning products, the reams of data Massachusetts suppliers submitted could have been managed easily in a system that permitted Massachusetts purchasers to sort products based on their environmental profiles.

Enhancements under way

As government purchasers begin examining big data tools, they are suggesting enhancements that will make the tools even more useful. One enhancement is providing additional assurance about the accuracy of the data contained within the systems. Government purchasers now rely on the certification results from organizations like Green Seal and UL Environment that investigate products to ensure they meet relevant environmental standards. Systems like GoodGuide, Greencurement, and the EPEAT registry rely on data that has not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny. Concerns about data quality are being addressed by integrating third-party validation into the data collection processes.

Another significant enhancement is merging the environmental filtering capabilities of these data tools into existing online purchasing systems. This makes it possible for government purchasing cooperatives or other suppliers with online ordering systems to present purchasers with greener products meeting their local environmental purchasing requirements.

Green data sources

EPEAT - epeat.net. Focused exclusively on desktop and laptop computers and monitors (with plans to expand into other electronic product categories), EPEAT provides detailed environmental information on more than 2,000 products. The products are ranked as bronze, silver, and gold based on the IEEE 1680 standard. The database also provides additional product information permitting purchasers to compare products based on things like energy efficiency, recyclability, and the environmental practices of the manufacturer.

GoodGuide - goodguide.com. Provides environmental, health, and social data on more than 175,000 products and 5,000 companies by compiling information from more than 1,000 different sources. GoodGuide helps purchasers identify safe, healthy and socially responsible products and companies. It currently offers detailed product information for personal care, household chemical, and food products, as well as appliances, apparel, and automobiles. It allows users to find and choose products quickly, easily, and according to personally customizable search criteria.

Greencurement - greencurement.com. With product, environmental, and health information on tens of thousands of commercially available products aggregated from dozens of data sources, Greencurement makes it possible to search for products with specific environmental benefits. Greencurement also offers a variety of consulting services to help government purchasers use the data.

Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing for 17 years. He is market development director for UL Environment. Contact him via e-mail at scot.case@ulenvironment.com or in Reading, PA, at 610-779-3770.