World's biggest consumers hold new hope for environment
provided by Worldwatch Institute
pending billions of dollars annually on goods and services often more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of entire countries corporations, international organizations, universities, and other large institutions are key in fostering the shift towards an environmentally sustainable world, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. Through their daily purchases, these mega-consumers hold considerable sway over the health and stability of many of the world's most fragile ecological systems, says Worldwatch Research Associate Lisa Mastny, author of Purchasing Power.
While environmentalists have worked for decades to win the hearts and minds of individuals, some of the world's biggest consumers have remained out of the spotlight, says Mastny. Yet their enormous and often environmentally devastating purchases of everything from gas-guzzling vehicle fleets to cancer-causing cleaning supplies can have far greater consequences for the future of our planet than the buying habits of most individual households.
In some industrial countries, government purchasing accounts for as much as 25 percent of GDP. Government procurement in the European Union alone totaled more than $1 trillion in 2001, or 14 percent of GDP. In North America, it reached $2 trillion, or about 18 percent of GDP. Universities, too, spend billions of dollars each year, on everything from campus buildings to cafeteria food. In the United States, colleges bought some $25 billion in goods and services in 1999 equivalent to nearly 3 percent of US GDP. And the United Nations spent nearly $14 billion on goods and services in 2000.
Because of the large-scale, systematic approach that most institutions take in their purchasing, a single decision made by one professional buyer or purchasing department can have a tremendous ripple effect, influencing the products used by hundreds or even thousands of individuals.
By that same token, says Mastny, just one environmentally focused purchasing policy or guidance if properly implemented and enforced can bring widespread benefits to an institution. By investing in everything from energy-efficient lighting to organic food, growing numbers of businesses, government agencies, hospitals, and other organizations are not only creating safer and healthier workplaces, but are also saving money.
If enough demand for green products is generated, entire markets can shift. A few notable successes point to the tremendous power of green purchasing:
But while green purchasing initiatives are blossoming in the world's wealthier nations, the question remains of how to jump-start a similar movement in the developing world. Although overall resource use in these countries is still relatively low compared to industrial countries, rising consumer demand will make strengthening local markets for environmentally sound technologies from renewable energy to non-chlorine bleached recycled paper increasingly important.
Mastny says that one way institutions can help spread green purchasing in developing countries is by using their own procurements to strengthen local green markets. By seeking to buy a greater portion of their goods and services from local green suppliers, leading international players like the United Nations, the World Bank, and multinational corporations can not only stimulate green markets, but also combat mounting criticism about the environmental impacts of their activities.
Green purchasing will never be a magic solution to the world's rampant resource consumption, but it does offer tremendous opportunities for lessening the impacts, says Mastny. And as more and more institutions realize the benefits of buying green in terms of employee health, the environment, and their own bottom-lines groups that disregard environmental factors risk being left behind.
Tips for Greening Purchasing Contracts
To green contracts with suppliers, purchasers can ask that:
Worldwatch Paper 166: Purchasing Power: Harnessing Institutional Procurement for People and the Planet costs $5 plus shipping and handling, and can be purchased through the Worldwatch website www.worldwatch.org) or by calling (888) 544-2303 (in US) or (570) 320-2076 (from overseas), or by faxing (570) 320-2079.
The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization, based in Washington, D.C., that works toward the evolution of an environmentally sustainable and socially just society in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the wellbeing of future generations.
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