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Red, White and Green?

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capitol.jpgBY TIM SMITH
Read the full version of this condensed article here.

Standing in a "river of consumption" - that's how General Services Administration administrator Martha Johnson recently introduced a roundtable discussion aimed at helping GSA meet its recently announced "zero environmental footprint" goal.

As the U.S. government's landlord and procurement agency, GSA provides advice on purchasing $425 billion worth of goods and services annually. The GSA also manages more than 10,000 buildings and 217,000 vehicles and takes back over 10,000 out-of-date computers every. This is a lot of stuff; where it starts, how it is used, and where it goes after use are at the heart of "greening" the operations of the largest purchaser in the world.

A major focal point for GSA is figuring out where to start. Setting priorities for impact reduction is both simple and difficult. It is simple in that areas of consumption that require a lot of energy or that touch production agricultural systems have the largest environmental footprints. It is difficult in that we really don't know what to do once high-impact goods and services are identified.

Will a certified product help reduce impacts? What role does conservation or efficiency play in sourcing decisions? For example, shifting from virgin paper of an unknown source to paper from well-managed forests or to recycled content will help, but maybe not as much as a fundamental shift to paperless offices or e-readers.

We desperately need new tools for translating the way markets think about green products into metrics of how products actually impact environmental and human health. Some of this work is being developed within the NorthStar Initiative at the University of Minnesota. A recent NorthStar discussion paper on the topic, What Is the Greener Choice, takes a first step in outlining alternatives to one-size-fits-all approaches to product comparisons.

While we don't have the answers readily available, what's exciting is that GSA is asking the hard questions--and it isn't the only one! Multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on improving data and communications of "green products" are exploding--from the Walmart-initiated Sustainability Consortium to the Keystone Center's Green Products Roundtable and initiatives emerging out of the Packard Foundation and Brookings Institution.

The GSA roundtable didn't charter new ground during these early discussions. But it does bring the power of the federal government to the many conversations underway in civil society and the business community. The U.S. government's voice and pocketbook will help bring additional legitimacy, and I hope clarity, to the Wild West of green products.

Tim Smith is a resident fellow of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and director of the IonE's NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

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