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Purchasing decisions at the local, state and federal levels account for over 20% of the US GNP, or $3.9 trillion dollars. Environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) - that is, the purchasing of products and/or services that have a lesser impact on human health and the environment when compared with competing projects and/or services that serve the same purpose - can drive the market toward more sustainable products while improving public and environmental health.

For years, Clean Water Action has advocated for safer and more environmentally-friendly consumer products, particularly those that have traditionally contained or been made with toxic substances.

We have educated legislators and pushed for local, state, and national policies designed to protect the environment and human health from harmful chemicals. As part of the Mind the Store campaign, we have worked with allies to apply pressure to retailers to removed toxic products from their shelves. And we have engaged with local governments and institutions to try to get them to adjust their purchasing strategies.

Greening Providence, Rhode Island's Purchasing

Earlier this year, we partnered with Healthy Babies Bright Cities and the City of Providence’s Purchasing Department, to purchase healthier furniture and healthier janitorial supplies.

“We are excited to explore environmentally preferable procurement practices because they align with our Sustainability Goals and themes of leading by example,” says Alex Berdick, Purchasing Strategy Manager for Providence, RI.

Why furniture? Furniture is an unexpected reservoir of toxic chemicals. These chemicals can migrate out of furniture and accumulate in dust. This dust affects the quality of our indoor air and allows chemicals to find their way into our bloodstreams. Key chemicals of concern in furniture are flame retardants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fluorinated compounds (PFAS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and antimicrobials. These chemicals are not needed in these products for fire safety or functional purposes, and flame retardants and VOCs are strongly linked to neurodevelopmental delays. In some cases, these chemicals cause health problems for those initially exposed and for future generations who may never be directly exposed to the chemical.

How does Environmentally Preferable Purchasing impact a city’s bottom line?

Hundreds of environmentally preferable products—from office paper to janitorial cleaners, electronics, transportation and landscaping products—are competitive in terms of quality, while costing the same or less than comparable conventional alternatives, over the product life.

Many of these products use less energy, water, fuel and other resources, saving additional money. For example, the City of Santa Rosa, CA transitioned to an environmentally preferable transmission lubricant. Because it required less frequent changing, the City is currently saving about $25,000 annually in labor costs.

How can your city green its procurement?

Safer States developed a Sustainable Procurement Roadmap with sample policies and strategies for implementation. Both the Center for Environmental Health and the Responsible Purchasing Network are available for one-on-one technical support.

This blog was authored by Johnathan Berard - Clean Water Action Rhode Island State Director; Rebecca Meuninck, PhD - Deputy Director of the Ecology Center; Kyra Naumoff Shields - Bright Cities Program Director.