A strategic approach to sustainable purchasing

When an organization buys sustainable products and services, it has a positive impact on human health and the environment. Better buying can and should also be cost effective. These five best practices make sustainable purchasing possible without compromising price, performance, or quality:[1]

1) Look beyond the first cost

Items with the lowest purchase price may have a higher life-cycle cost than other options. A Life Cycle Cost Analysis can help evaluate options before making a purchase or finalizing a project. It is more likely to find sustainable values when significant quantities or when high-value goods or services are purchased.

Life Cycle Cost Analysis

In the analysis, the initial cost includes expenses associated with acquisition, shipping, and receiving of goods. Service cost should be quantified when a purchase triggers the need to contract for specialized service or maintenance.

For durable goods, especially those involving electrical or mechanical components, the preventive maintenance cost varies substantially. When capital equipment or facilities are being purchased or built, the quantity of energy, water, labor, and other resources involved in daily use will impact the operating cost.

Disposal cost also belongs in the equation whether the asset is discarded, recycled, or resold.

2) Know what you discard

Waste Audit

A waste audit is a low-tech, hands-on task that identifies and quantifies items that are easily damaged or quickly worn-out. That information becomes an important component of future purchase decisions.[2]

ecoPreserve recently participated in a restaurant waste audit, where significant numbers of wooden chopsticks were found in the trash. With a few quick questions, we learned that chopsticks were included in every place setting. If not used, they were discarded.

After a quick analysis, chopsticks that could be washed and reused were found to have a lower life cycle cost than the disposable ones.

3) Consider long-term impact

Depending on the purchase being considered, one or more of these questions may lead to monthly or quarterly bottom-line savings.

    • Is it reusable?

      Will it be discarded after one use, like the wooden chopsticks in many restaurants, or will a more durable product bring lower life-cycle cost?

    • Can it be recycled?

      Beyond the positive environmental impact, many recycled items can be sold. Avoid purchasing non-recyclable plastics, which one day may be banned[3], making them unusable as well as undesirable! These include Styrofoam, plastic-lined paper containers, and any packaging or lid made of polystyrene (the #6 plastic).

    • Is it made of recycled materials?

      When purchased items have recycled content, that benefits both the manufacturer and the recycling facility. Waste is minimized while greater use is made of resources. That’s the Circular Economy!

    • Can renewable energy or alternative fuels be used?

      While petroleum products further pollute water sources and spew greenhouse gasses, renewable energy prices have steadily declined. The urgent need for clean energy grows as the cost diminishes.[4]

    • How efficient are the lighting and other electrical components?

      LED Bulbs
      Manufacturer claims are independently verified through the EPEAT program, which publishes an online registry[5] of sustainable products.
      The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ENERGY STAR® program[6] certifies that a product saves energy without reducing the features or functions.
      Further energy can be saved when Light-Emitting Diodes (LED) are purchased rather than Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL). Beyond their lower wattage, LED provide the advantages of lasting longer and containing no mercury. Hazardous substances like mercury can increase disposal cost.

    4) Source responsibly

    Where and how an organization spends its money is a message. It tells consumers and other businesses that the organization participates in positive change in the community and beyond. Sustainable sourcing is sourcing for good.[7]

    Organizations that supply or prepare food can reduce long-distance shipping needs when they participate in sustainable local agriculture. The purchase choice of local produce and meats reduce shipping costs and environmental impacts from shipping while supporting the local economy.

    Sustainable agriculture brings seasonal changes to restaurant menus and grocery store produce aisles. This eliminates the need to transport and warehouse food from international or cross-continent sources.


Wood and paper products can also be sourced sustainably. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)[8] certifies products from forests that are responsibly managed. In those forests, seedlings are planted to replace any harvested trees.

Responsible sourcing is ethical sourcing. That requires attention to social and humanitarian practices:[9]

  • Eliminating child labor
  • Paying fair wages
  • Providing safe and healthy working conditions
  • Limiting pesticide use

5) Consider alternatives to one-time purchases

Sustainable best practices can lower an item’s net cost. Examine project budgets to find equipment being purchased for only one project. Could equipment be borrowed from elsewhere in the organization? That could bring the net cost to zero! Could the item be rented? Again, substantial savings are possible.[10]

Shared Printer

Capital assets return value only when used regularly. They otherwise incur cost simply by occupying valuable space. Collaborative use of equipment and materials optimizes materials and reduces costs. To increase the efficiency of sharing, an organization should maintain an asset inventory that employees — especially project managers — can access. To avoid losing or misplacing an asset, attach an RFID tag.

The best practices of sustainable purchasing are key components of the circular economy, where waste is minimized and resources yield maximum value. When an organization participates in the circular economy, it benefits society and the environment while furthering its own cost control and efficiency.

[1] TriplePundit.com — Sustainable Purchasing 101
[2] Passengers pitch in to divert landfill waste
[3] MWDaily.com — Minneapolis businesses prepare for ban on certain plastics
[4] CosmosMagazine.com — Protests and purchasing power could be positive tipping points in climate change
[5] EPEAT Registry
[6] EnergyStar.gov
[7] StPeteCatalyst.com — Five ways St. Pete’s proposed sustainability plan could impact businesses
[8] US.FSC.org — Forest Stewardship Council
[9] SourcingNetwork.org — Responsible Sourcing Network
[10] LabManager.com — Building a culture of sustainability

Jessica Wright

Jessica Wright

Project Manager at ecoPreserve
LEED Green Associate, Florida Water AP - - A problem-solving, innovative manager, Jessica has led projects in varied scenarios including healthcare, food services, higher education, and local government. Her expertise in Zero Waste, sustainable purchasing, and waste minimization and diversion have earned her the lead of ecoPreserve’s Resource Lifecycle services. A graduate of the University of Central Florida, she also holds a degree in Sustainability from the University of Phoenix.
Jessica Wright


We empower organizations to reduce environmental impact, improve efficiency, and improve quality of life.
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