Green purchasing policies hampered by information void

Identifying "green" products is one of the most painstaking chores facing purchasing departments in both private and public sector organisations, as the recent efforts of one council to implement a chemical action plan have underlined. The biggest gap is the lack of a central source of information to reduce duplication of effort by purchasing officers.

Many local authorities and businesses have established environmental policies committing them to use products deemed to be "environmentally acceptable". The task of finding and selecting such goods generally falls on purchasing officers who have few information sources and are often bombarded with competing manufacturers' claims.

These obstacles were evident in local "green purchasing" initiatives launched two years ago within the National Health Service (ENDS Report 196, pp 25-27). And they are being replicated many times over as individuals from each organisation search for green products and chase manufacturers and suppliers for product information. "There is a lot of reinventing the wheel going on and a desperate need for information," says Cathy McKenzie, Environmental Coordinator for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

Leicester City Council faced this problem in attempting to implement its Chemical Action Plan (CAP), which was prepared in response to Friends of the Earth's environment charter for local authorities. The CAP calls on the council "to examine chemical usage and to ensure, whenever possible, that the most environmentally friendly products are chosen."

Specific guidelines within the plan include:

  • Cleaning products must contain less than 0.5% phosphorus and no nitrilotriacetic (NTA).

  • No "black list" or "red list" substances are to be used in pesticides and other horticultural products.

  • All aerosol products are to be replaced by pump action sprays.

  • Wood preservatives and wood treated with preservatives are banned if they contain pentachlorophenol, lindane or tri-butyltin oxide.

    Within the city's Neighbourhood Centres and Leisure and Services Department, it was Nick Wilson's task to find the right products. He concluded in a report on cleaning products that it "would be useful to set up a system to co-ordinate chemical audits to avoid duplication in each department." His department had already started compiling a database combining the requirements of the CAP and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, but work on this has now stopped while a council-wide database is set up.

    The first stop in identifying "green" products was the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation (ESPO), which represents the area's local authorities. No products meeting CAP requirements were in its catalogue at the time. However, the next edition is expected to list 17 "green" cleaning products made by Ecover, Bio-D and Honesty. Ecover products have been tested for performance and found to be "of good quality," the report says.

    Nick Wilson's next move was to contact trade associations. The Soap and Detergent Industry Association gave limited help, he says, as it does not represent smaller firms such as Ecover.

    Realising that there is no central database of product data against which to compare the requirements of the CAP, Nick Wilson went direct to the manufacturers. But the response has been varied. Questions asked of a Johnson Wax division which supplies the professional market, for example, could not be answered by the company because it is itself compiling a European database of environmental information on its raw materials - a process which will take many months to complete, the company said.

    Even when companies did provide data, Nick Wilson found, some were to US specifications and others to UK. And although chemicals were listed, the amounts which a product contained were often not given.

    Finding hydrogen peroxide bleach containing no perfumes and dyes was particularly difficult. Nick Wilson has even tried buying custom-made batches. As yet he has had no reply from the manufacturers, but bulk orders through ESPO may stand a greater chance of being accepted, he believes.

    The forthcoming EC eco-labelling scheme should go some way to helping purchasers in green purchasing decisions. But it will be several years before many of the products used by local authorities are covered.

    An independent database of product information could go some way to reduce the duplication of work under way both within and between councils, and indeed other organisations - including Government Departments, which are due to complete "green housekeeping" strategies by the end of 1992. But, as a spokesman for the Association of County Supplies Officers commented, there would be tricky questions about how such a database should be financed, who should run it, and how to vet suppliers' claims for their products.

    These issues have yet to be tackled head on by the three local authority associations, which are moving to co-ordinate their members' environmental programmes. A network of environmental co-ordinators and a database on environmental initiatives and topics where they are encountering problems is being set up. Purchasing policies will certainly feature high on this list, according to Cathy McKenzie.

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