Cleaning Up the Government's Shopping Bags

How the Ecology Center's work on sustainable, accountable government procurement policies reduces toxic chemicals from entering the environment, supports communities, and addresses climate change.

Money is the root of all evil, so it has been said. But sometimes money, specifically how and what we purchase, can be a powerful tool for societal transformation. 

You might do this already: Choose local apples over those that have traveled thousands of miles. Shop at the zero waste store. Buy things with reusable or recyclable packaging. Or even invest your retirement account in environmentally or socially responsible funds. Collectively, responsible spending makes a big difference. For example, a recent study from Harvard University found that after safer furniture was purchased, levels of toxic chemicals in interior dust decreased, reducing occupants' exposure.

We understand the impact purchasing can have on social change, which is why the Ecology Center and our partners have targeted some of the biggest purchasers of all – governments – as an intervention point. Each year, the United States federal government spends $600 billion – about 13% of our federal budget – on stuff. State and local governments spend a great deal, too: Michigan spends about $2.5 billion a year. On the shopping list are pens, staplers, computers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, construction materials, furnishings, vehicles, medical devices, playground equipment, carpet and flooring, and more. 

So when the government goes shopping, it brings back big shopping bags. And when governments purchase clean products that have been responsibly sourced and do not contain harmful chemicals, they play a massive role in reducing GHG emissions and toxic waste, thus protecting our health, our communities, and the environment. 

In the last few years, our hard work has been paying off. 

Our first win was in the Ecology Center’s hometown of Ann Arbor. In 2019, we worked with the City to create a sustainable procurement policy explicitly listing PFAS and other hazardous chemicals to avoid in city purchasing. This policy has been a model for other small- and mid-sized cities looking to create non-toxic purchasing policies. 

In 2022, we helped the City of Lansing create a model equitable, non-toxic, and climate-friendly procurement policy. The policy bans purchasing products containing PFAS, phthalates, and single-use plastics and outlines climate-friendly and equitable purchasing guidelines. In addition, the policy encourages seeking out minority-owned, locally-owned, small businesses, unionized vendors, and those using fair labor practices.

Regionally, through the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN), we've created an information-sharing peer network for sustainable purchasing. Through the network, municipal employees, university faculty and staff, and environmental health experts share knowledge and support each other as they work to implement sustainable purchasing in their communities. 

"The Ecology Center and GLCAN provide much-needed information and resources that helped Lansing adopt an effective green purchasing policy," said Lori Welch, Sustainability Manager for the City of Lansing – Public Service Department. "Their continued support is helping to ensure City employees are prepared to procure goods and services that are safer and more sustainable."

Though our focus has been helping Great Lakes communities transition to sustainable purchasing, we share our lessons learned with any interested municipality. That’s how we helped Anchorage, Alaska, and Providence, Rhode Island, pass resolutions to move their sustainable procurement policies forward in 2020. We continue working with cities across North America, including the cities of Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, and Toronto, Canada, to help them implement sustainable purchasing practices. 

At the state level, we worked with Great Lakes PFAS Action Network, a community-driven advocacy group, to successfully advocate for Michigan to sign the first PFAS-free procurement policy in the nation. This groundbreaking executive directive, signed into law in October of 2021, directed state purchasers to avoid all products containing every type of PFAS. Many other states are following suit, including Maine, New York, and Colorado. 

Also in 2021, the Biden Administration released an improved framework for assessing the environmental performance standards for federal purchasing. In addition to outlining an ambitious path to achieving net-zero emissions from federal procurement, the plan also advises avoiding products containing PFAS. For example, furniture, cutlery, dishware, containers, insulation, paint, carpet and flooring, adhesives, cleaning solutions, dishwasher detergents, soaps, and many other products contain the compounds. Due to the policy, the government will no longer purchase any of this stuff if it's laced with PFAS. Not only will that reduce individual exposure to hazardous chemicals, but it will also encourage manufacturers to stop using PFAS altogether if they want to sell to the government. 

The Ecology Center helped advocate for the executive order. We also worked with national partners and PFAS-impacted community members to provide comments and resources on how the government should implement the order. Additionally, we have provided guidance, tools, and suggestions to analysts helping the Department of Defense figure out how to comply with their new PFAS-free procurement mandates., 

In total, the Ecology Center has cleaned up BILLIONS in local, state, and federal government purchasing. But who’s counting? We are! We’re proud of this work and its significant impact on cleaning up our material economy. 

If you are interested in helping your local government adopt a sustainable purchasing policy, the Ecology Center and our partners have many resources available. We help craft model policies and provide curated resources for municipal workers, including product information and criteria for better purchasing. We then help with policy implementation support through training modules to help municipalities execute their environmentally preferable purchasing plans and measure their progress. We also promote peer-sharing networks to share information on best practices and to avoid pitfalls encountered by those who have had an opportunity to create and implement their strategies.