How to buy sustainable products
STOP! Before you start searching for products consider: do you actually need to buy a new product in the first place? This is the most important step you can take in reducing your impact as a consumer on the environment. Could you:
- Do without it, do you really need it (as opposed to just wanting it)?
- Reduce use of the existing product (or use it more efficiently) so it lasts longer.
- Repair or recondition the existing product to extend its life.
- Reuse the product or its components in some useful way.
Reducing our consumption reduces both direct and indirect impacts on the environment. This is where consumers can make the big difference.
If you have to buy goods and services then you can use the following process to assess the sustainability of available products:
- Collect information and identify potential environmental impacts of the product.
- Interpret collected information.
- Compare different brands.
Step 1. Collect information and research potential impacts
To find out the sustainability of a product range (e.g. paper, cleaning detergents) gather information on the environmental performance of specific brands. A good starting point is to consider whether the following environmental issues are relevant:
- energy use;
- water consumption;
- disposal options at end-of-life;
- toxic chemicals;
- atmospheric pollutants (e.g. greenhouse gases, ozone-depleting compounds etc).
This is a basic list and can be expanded to include other factors such as raw materials used (e.g. recycled content, rainforest timber), processing and manufacturing processes, running costs and amounts of packaging materials used. For example water agencies would put water efficiency as a priority, while an office-based organisation would be more interested in recycled-content paper and energy efficiency in their office machines.
Gathering information on the environmental aspects of different brands will enable comparisons between the performances of competing products. Additional information on the environmental performance of the manufacturer or supplier can also be collected. Sources of information on the environmental impacts of products include:
Talking directly with suppliers is always recommended. Be cautious if suppliers cannot provide information about the purported environmental performance of their products. Often you may receive contradictory information about a product. At the end of the day you will need to make a balanced decision based on information provided from different sources. It is up to you to make the call on what you think is a reliable or credible source of information and what is not.
Step 2. Interpreting information
Information needs to be interpreted in order to make a final decision on which product to purchase. This information will feed into the broader procurement decision making process which also takes account of factors such as cost, availability and after-sales service.
Environmental claims made by companies when advertising their products are subject to regulation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). When interpreting information provided by companies beware of claims made that are:
Vague claims commonly made by companies include 'recyclable', 'environmentally safe' and 'ozone friendly'.
Where such a claim is made it is important to seek substantiation of the claim from suppliers before accepting it as fact.
Key questions to ask when determining the reliability of information:
- Who has provided the information (manufacturer, supplier or third-party)?
- Are environmental claims verified by a reputable third-party organisation (such as an eco-label accreditation program) and consistent with the ACCC code for advertising (see box above)
- Is the manufacturer or supplier reputable?
It is important to ensure that when comparing the performance of the product against different environmental criteria that you compare 'like with like'.
- With recycled content, pre-consumer waste is different from post-consumer waste.
- With bleaching paper, oxygen bleaching is different from chlorine-free bleaching.
- With energy consumption labelling standards, Energy Star is different from Minimum Energy Performance Standard (MEPS) star rating.
It is important to have a good understanding of different environmental criteria, claims made about them and how they are measured.
Step 3. Comparing and assessing products
Once product information has been gathered and its reliability determined, the next step is to compare brands and assess which is the most suitable product.
Rank the key environmental issues based on the product's potential impact on the environment and organisational priorities. These could be energy or water consumption, waste production, toxicity etc. Considerations such as eco-label accreditation or the manufacturer's reputation can also be used.
Possible methods to compare and assess products include:
Eliminate products that do not meet key environmental criteria or standards. For example, if paper with 60% recycled content is needed, all brands with no recycled content or less than the amount required can be eliminated.
Elimination is harder if there are trade-offs between different environmental criteria, for example energy versus water consumption in dishwashers.
- A checklist assessment table
Key sustainability criteria can be used to rate each product and determine the most sustainable product overall. Qualitative criteria may be used as well as quantitative data. This method enables multiple criteria to be considered at different stages of the product's lifecycle i.e. from when it is manufactured through to its disposal (commonly referred to as the 'cradle to grave' approach). Examples of criteria include:
- what is the product made from;
- where is it manufactured (within NSW, Australia or imported);
- what are the manufacturer's environmental credentials or reputation;
- what packaging used to transport or store the product;
- what and how much in resources will it use over its life (energy, water, gas, fuel, batteries, toner, paper etc.);
- what guarantees or after-sales service does it come with;
- what will happen to it at end-of-life (reused, recycled, remanufactured, sent to landfill)?
This is a more structured technique, which provides an easy-to-compare-table and overall assessment of each product.Formal quantitative assessment
Assessing a product's performance against sustainability criteria is used for more complex products or major procurement decisions. Examples of these are long-term supply contracts for goods or services or high-value purchases such as capital works. In these cases, assessing the sustainability of products may be very complex and there may be a need to use specialised techniques such as life-cycle analysis. Outcomes of the sustainability assessment will generally feed into a broader tender-evaluation process.
For more information see Incorporating sustainability into simple procurement processes or the following websites
NSW Government Procurement Framework
NSW Government Contracts homepage
NSW Dept of Finance and Services SmartBuy
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) (US EPA)
European Eco-Procurement Initiative (ICLEI - International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives)
Page last updated: 04 July 2011