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Procurement Perspectives: Vigilance key against ‘green-washing’

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: Vigilance key against ‘green-washing’

One of the questions that I am often asked is related to environmental products. How does a municipality verify the environmental claims that are made with respect to competing products?

The term “green-washing” describes the advertising practice of misleading consumers about a product’s environmental benefits.

With growing sensitivity to environmental concerns — particularly within the public sector — suppliers around the world have begun tailoring their marketing materials to present their products in the most favourable environmental light.

Some of these efforts are so ludicrous it is laughable. For instance, in the case of a Japanese sport utility vehicle which was advertised as having been “conceived and developed in the homeland of the Kyoto Accords.”

Yet other claims are far harder to evaluate, particularly when they are backed up by what purport to be legitimate government testing and independent scientific studies. Consider, for example, the following statement from an article published by the Property and Environmental Research Centre:

“Ethanol is a politician’s dream. It is supposed to reduce automobile emissions of carbon monoxide and other gases, promote energy independence, and assist mid-western corn farmers (not to mention large ethanol producers such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill). In April, the senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a plan that, if enacted, would double ethanol production.

“But ethanol fails to perform as promised. Its use appears to have no net positive air quality benefits; its production may entail other environmental costs such as soil degradation; and it probably does not contribute to energy independence. Only in helping corn growers and ethanol producers does ethanol pull through as advertised.”

I offer no opinion as to whether this assessment is accurate or mistaken — for the simple reason that is not necessary for the purposes of this example. The critical point to note is that putting municipal staff in a position where they are forced to undertake the evaluation of scientific claims (such as the comparative benefit of ethanol relative to more conventional fossil fuels), with neither the training, the equipment nor expertise to do so, is fundamentally unrealistic.

Even if the guidelines given by the municipal council were clear as to how price and environmental considerations are to be balanced against each other (and they never are), it is only possible to factor environmental factors into a decision if precise information is available.

In view of the ocean of environmental misinformation that passes for science these days that is simply not the case. Nor is the municipal council in any better position to make such an assessment.

The second critical question left unanswered by virtually all municipal bylaws that touch on such matters as the comparative environmental impact of the products offered by suppliers is this: by whom and on what basis are environmental trade-offs to be made?

Very often environmental improvements of one kind result in environmental costs of some other kind.

For instance, in the 1990s, oil companies began to use methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) as a fuel oxygenate that is used in gasoline to reduce the atmospheric pollution associated with automobile emissions, in order to meet clean air standards imposed in New York City and Southern California. Although the use of MTBE was credited with “contributing to significant reductions in carbon monoxide and ozone levels,” its use proved problematic in other ways.

In addition to the protection of the environment, other hot button topics singled out for special attention in municipal procurement bylaws are concerns regarding the purchase of products produced in sweatshops and the goal of promoting, and incorporating wherever possible, the requirements of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Provisions of this sort are obviously well intentioned. However, as with the evaluation of competing environmental alternatives, procurement policies of this kind require municipal staff to make complex assessments of economic and social considerations.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at swbauld@purchasingci.com. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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