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Contractors, agencies struggle to measure ‘greenness’ of purchases

Apr. 3, 2013 - 10:41AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
GSA recruited about 80 small businesses in 2010 to participate in a pilot program to track their emissions, but businesses slowly dropped out. GSA shut the program down in November - nearly nine months early - because low participation made the program too expensive.
GSA recruited about 80 small businesses in 2010 to participate in a pilot program to track their emissions, but businesses slowly dropped out. GSA shut the program down in November - nearly nine months early - because low participation made the program too expensive. (AFP / Getty Images)

Three years ago, the General Services Administration came up with a plan to give preferential treatment to contractors that track their greenhouse gas emissions. So far, that plan remains a goal rather than a reality.

GSA recruited about 80 small businesses in 2010 to participate in a pilot program to track their emissions, but businesses slowly dropped out. GSA shut the program down in November — nearly nine months early — because low participation made the program too expensive.

Small and medium-sized businesses will have a tough time keeping track of and reporting greenhouse gas emissions, said Jeffrey Harris, senior vice president for programs at Alliance to Save Energy.

“I think it’s unrealistic to expect any but very large and sophisticated firms to really be able to respond very well,” Harris said.

Agencies also are struggling to create procurement systems that take emissions into account in their contracting decisions.

Taylor Wilkerson, program manager at LMI, a nonprofit that helps agencies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said agencies are working on how to account for differences in emissions at large and small businesses in the procurement process.

“How important will emissions be among procurement criteria? That is the concern,” Wilkerson said.

One of the biggest obstacles in setting reporting requirements will be keeping businesses’ costs low.

“It is yet to be seen how this all will play out,” Wilkerson said.

President Obama ordered agencies in 2009 to analyze the possibilities of using greenhouse gas emission data in their procurement processes. In 2010, a working group led by GSA said that agencies should use emissions as part of the procurement process.

The 2009 executive order also set specific targets for reducing direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The White House pledged that the government overall will reduce direct emissions — such as those generated by federal cars and buildings — by 28 percent below 2008 levels. Indirect emissions — such as those caused by employee business travel and commuting to work — must be cut 13 percent. Emissions caused by federal contractors and federal purchasing are included in the 13 percent target.

While agencies are working out difficult issues, Wilkerson said he believes that they will eventually begin using greenhouse gas emissions as a component in their purchasing actions.

“It’s really just a matter of time before the federal government looks for greenhouse gas emissions reductions from its suppliers,” he said.

GSA will use the data it collected in the pilot program to help it develop ways to assist small businesses in tracking and reporting greenhouse gas emission data, according to the agency.

GSA also has set up an online community at data.gov — the Sustainable Supply Chain Community of Practice — that offers research and information to federal suppliers. And it asks for companies to voluntarily create greenhouse gas emission inventories.

The agency also collects data on small shipments from its vendors, and uses the data to increase the number of deliveries made by truck or rail instead of by airplane, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to GSA.

Harris said the government should set a simpler goal for its contractors: Apply its own energy-efficiency goals — such as reducing facility energy use — to its suppliers. Businesses would be able to better understand and manage those requirements than creating a tracking system for greenhouse gases, he said.

“I think that would be a concrete and manageable approach that smaller businesses could understand,” Harris said.

W.L. Grenoble, executive director of the Center for Supply Chain Research at Penn State University, said most of the effort to report and then reduce emissions is being voluntarily undertaken by large corporations.

More companies will follow once agencies make reporting a procurement requirement, he said.

“I think there are some big changes coming once that becomes part of federal purchasing,” Grenoble said.

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