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Driving Sustainability with MRO Consumables Purchasing


Why is it sometimes so difficult to tell which purchasing decision is the most sustainable? At the highest level, striving for sustainability means doing business in a way that has less impact on the environment, and while that sounds simple, it gets complicated fast.

Just think about the many kinds of environmental impacts a decision can have. Depleting natural resources, emitting carbon dioxide and adding trash to landfills are a few of the big ones, and these are just the beginning. Any product will have many impacts to consider. So how can you tell what really matters when you’re choosing what to purchase?

Todd Wingfield is environmental stewardship director at Georgia Pacific. He shared a framework that uses four questions to make sustainable decisions easier. With paper products as an example, he explained the broad considerations that can help you make smart decisions.

Question No. 1: What Are My Goals?

Putting in the work to clarify your sustainability goals can make it easier to weigh one kind of environmental benefit against another. The first thing to look at is whether your organization has set high-level sustainability goals.

Typically, high-level corporate goals involve measurable targets and distinct timeframes. For example, an organization might set out to cut emissions by a specific percentage, or it might strive to divert a certain amount of material from the municipal solid waste stream.

To understand how your purchasing decisions can make a measurable difference here, you’ll need to work with suppliers and product manufacturers. For example, a supplier may provide information on environmental certifications, while a manufacturer may be able to use a model to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide emissions associated with choosing a more efficiently designed product, or the amount of waste reduction associated with choosing a controlled dispensing solution.

Then, you can use these estimates to determine which choices better support your organization’s sustainability goals while also achieving cost efficiency, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction.

But what if you don’t have strong organizational goals? Todd described how things can be simpler at the operational level: “A facility manager might say, ‘I just want to have less stuff going in the trash,’ or ‘I just want to use products with more recycled content.’ You can still measure these things and track your progress. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Question No. 2: How Is It Sourced?

Now it’s time to think about what goes into the product.

For paper products, responsible sourcing practices are key. There are two major certifications to indicate responsible sourcing practices: FSC, established by the independent Forest Stewardship Council, and SFI, established by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, an organization launched by the trade group that represents forest and paper companies in the U.S.

“Third-party certifications can be a nice ‘easy button,’” Todd said. They’re typically indicated on product packaging.

Another sourcing strategy is to look at the amount of recycled content in the product. There are merits to both approaches.

“Using recycled content is a good thing to do because it's an efficient use of resources that otherwise may have gone to a landfill,” Todd said. “Using responsibly sourced fiber is also good because it's coming from a forest that will remain a forest thanks to the replanting efforts that the certification mandates. These strategies are different, but both are good.”

Question No. 3: How Is It Designed?

A thoughtfully designed product can use resources as efficiently as possible, getting the job done with less.

“Think about an insulated paper cup,” said Todd. “If you can have a single-wall cup that doesn't need to be double-cupped or used with a sleeve, it'll do the same job with less material. That's efficient design.”

And using resources efficiently in a product has a knock-on effect for transportation and storage. “Well-designed products and packaging can take up less space on a truck than a bulkier alternative,” said Todd. "Think of a product like compact, coreless bath tissue. You'll have more sheets on a roll, which means more sheets on the truck, fewer trucks on the road and lower associated emissions from transporting the product."

Question No. 4: Is There a Way to Keep It Out of a Landfill?

This is where a common consumer slogan comes into play: reduce, reuse, recycle. These strategies form a hierarchy. It’s good to recycle or compost something, it’s better to reuse something instead of throwing it away, and it’s best of all not to use it in the first place.

“Controlled dispensing of paper towels is a classic example of a reduction strategy,” said Todd. “If less gets used, less gets thrown away. And it’s also a classic win-win, because it lowers product spend since less is wasted.”

Reuse is the next step down the hierarchy, but for consumable paper products it isn’t an option.

That leaves recycling or composting, the main ways of diverting waste from the landfill. Running effective recycling and composting programs isn’t always easy, but Todd has three operational tips:

“First, work with your local service providers to find out exactly what they’ll accept," he said. "Then, work with your suppliers to determine what products will meet the requirements of your local recycling and composting infrastructure. Finally, educate the people who are sorting the waste, whether they’re employees or guests, to make sure the right stuff goes to the right places.”

Sorting waste is often the biggest operational challenge in a facility. Todd suggested consulting with local service providers for recommendations and best practices.

“When it comes to sorting, your recycling and composting providers have a vested interest in your success," Todd said. "If the waste stream is contaminated by unacceptable items, it creates a costly problem for them.”


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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.