Think Twice about Making the Purchase

How sustainability can factor into the purchase of anything from a building to what goes inside

Sustainability extends beyond the boundaries of a building. It includes the products and materials that are purchased for use in the building, whether paper products or equipment or construction materials. Before making any purchase, a primary consideration for building managers is whether the existing product has been used to the end of its useful life. Often products are thrown away or recycled while still functioning due to a desire to have the best or newest product on the market.

Disposal options are a factor, as well, given electronic waste (e-waste) has become a worldwide issue and concern. While better data collection is needed, the EPA reports millions of tons of e-waste annually in the US. This waste includes televisions, cell phones, computers, and peripherals such as printers and scanners. Only 25 percent of this waste is diverted from landfills. Before making new purchases, property professionals should determine if they can meet the purchase needs in another way to limit waste. If a product is a consumable item, efforts can be made to purchase only the amount needed to accomplish the task at hand versus stockpiling supplies.

Product Reuse

Purchasing goods with recycled content is a positive step toward reducing consumption of natural resources. However, reusing an itemand thereby extending its useful lifeis even better. Consider renting or leasing items that are used infrequently. Managers can also determine if suppliers offer options for refurbished or secondhand products. Consulting second-life programs and vendors that specialize in refurbished equipment is a valuable practice, especially for furniture purchases given these products are often discarded before the end of their useful life. With fabrics or coverings that can be replaced to extend the life, updating existing furniture presents an opportunity for reuse. Another option is to purchase from or donate to architectural salvage businesses that are becoming more common. Such companies often have odd or unique parts to repair existing doors, windows, or other fittings in older buildings. They may also have materials that can be reused, such as flooring, or wood beams. This material can often be repurposed and integrated as attractive architectural features in a sustainable remodeling.

Choose Longer-Life Goods

Durable goods should be purchased instead of consumable goods whenever possible. This reduces the volume of goods that need to be purchased, resulting in financial savings, as well as limiting environmental impact. Most goods purchased in the United States have a relatively short usable life (six months or less), either because they are designed this way or because they are replaced by more efficient or technologically advanced goods. Many companies design products for a limited functional life to prompt customers to purchase a newer version of the same product. This practice, called designing for obsolescence, may be good for a company wanting to increase its profits by selling more goods; however, it poses a challenge for meeting high-performance sustainable purchasing goals.

Before buying a product, a building manager should compare its useful life with that of its competitors andall other factors being equalchoose the one that lasts the longest. Before purchasing a disposable product (consumable goods), building managers should ask suppliers or vendors for nondisposable alternatives (durable goods). In addition, they should compare the costs of disposable products (for example, estimate the cost per use) with nondisposable versions to determine if there are additional benefits to the triple bottom line.

Purchase Goods with Positive Social and Environmental Attributes

While building management ultimately decides on product purchases, vendors can serve as reliable sources of information about products and competitors. Asking vendors (or potential vendors) for products with environmental or social attributes that reduce the impact during the product life cycle is important for sustainable purchasing. Vendors should provide verifiable literature about their products or offer other information through recognized and trusted third-party certification organizations.

Product certifications, often called ecolabels, can be used to evaluate specific goods. For example, if management has determined that disposable plates and utensils will be used in a food service area, the FSC ecolabel will identify which paper products are manufactured using materials from managed forests. Likewise, compostable alternatives to plastic utensils can be identified through the Biodegradable Products Institute.

Focus on Vendors Committed to Sustainable Practices

Often vendors who sell sustainable products use sustainable business practices themselves. In pursuing sustainable purchasing decisions, building professionals should verify vendors are truly sustainable, and not practicing greenwashing. Read about vendors’ business practices and sustainability commitments on their websites, and ask direct questions about their commitment to sustainability. In addition, identify whether or not vendors belong to sustainability associations and have third-party certifications for products.

One of the more prevalent certifications for goods is the Cradle to Cradle Products Institute, inspired by the book Cradle to Cradle: The Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This institute seeks to help companies certify products at different levels based on a product’s potential to be manufactured out of original materials (cradle), used, then either recycled into the same product or broken down into source material for other products, becoming agricultural or technical “nutrients” (back to cradle). The organization uses five achievement levelsbasic, bronze, silver, gold, and platinumthat evaluate five quality categories of a product:

  • material health
  • material reutilization
  • renewable energy and carbon management
  • water stewardship
  • social fairness

Evaluate Lifecycle Costs for Durable Goods

There are often more costs associated with owning goods than the initial purchase price, especially when purchasing energy-consuming equipment, from kitchen equipment to desktop technology to lights. Evaluating the total cost of a purchase involves taking into account the costs associated with the entire life cycle of the product. To pursue a lifecycle cost approach, effort should be taken to identify the activities and estimate the costs associated with owning the product, as well as other costs, including shipping, transportation, and delivery to the building.

Once the activities are identified, calculation can be made to compare the total costs for different product options. Many products with lower purchase prices have shorter useful lives and can ultimately cost owners more in the long run. By evaluating the total cost of a product in terms of its life cycle, building managers can create an effective business case for sustainable purchases that can result in longer-lasting, higher-efficiency products. Tools and protocols for lifecycle cost (LCC) assessment continue to evolve as the focus on high-performance operations remains critical to the built environment and its impact.

Minimize Transportation of Goods

A significant portion of a product’s negative environmental and social impact involves transporting raw materials and manufactured products to their final destination. Limiting products and services to those that minimize transportation will use fewer natural resources and less embodied energy. Purchasing products harvested and manufactured locally will encourage local economic development, reduce pollution from tailpipe emissions, and save on shipping costs. Purchasing goods locally will also make relationships with vendors more transparent, offering insight into whether they use fair labor practices.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s course High-Performance Sustainable Building Practices, part of the RPA|HP and FMA|HP designation programs. More information regarding this course or the new High-Performance certificate courses is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website,