MANAGEMENT

How sustainable procurement is helping Stanford go green

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Stanford's sustainability efforts place it among the best of higher education's climate superstars. 

With warnings from environmentalists about the catastrophic costs of climate inaction growing louder every day, universities worldwide are coming forward with fantastic examples of what higher education can do to stem the tide.

From making zero-carbon pledges to introducing climate-conscious curriculum and refitting buildings with energy-saving features, many future-facing learning institutions are doing their best to lead by example.

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The matter of sustainable use of the planet’s limited resources is one of growing urgency for good reason; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said last year the world only had 12 years to address climate change. 

Since then, the climate change bogeyman has featured almost daily in screaming headlines everywhere. Failure to meet the 1.5C global warming target, even if just in the vicinity of half a degree, would worsen the risk of disasters like floods, drought and extreme heat, affecting hundreds of millions across the world.

More recently, climate observers said the 12-year estimate was actually far too optimistic–the more likely deadline is really end-2020, which gives the world just under a year and half to take real action.

Truth or exaggeration, what these warnings do is draw a line in the sand: climate action is a must and apathy no longer an excuse, regardless where you stand on the climate debate.

Against such a backdrop, everyone, from the small business entity and the large corporation, to the governments and its legislators and policymakers, all the way down to the individual person, is taking up arms to join the battle for planet Earth. 

And marching with them to the frontlines are the world’s universities.

The Stanford approach to sustainability

Standing head and shoulders above many of these institutions is Stanford University, whose sustainability efforts place it among the best of higher education’s climate superstars. 

The school this year earned the second-highest sustainability score of 943 international institutions that submitted reports to the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STAR), a global sustainability standard created by and for higher education. 

At 88 percent, it was not only Stanford’s highest-ever STAR achievement, it was also the highest score of any institution across the US. 

But healing the planet isn’t about achieving gleaming records, even if it does lift the institution’s reputation and help with student recruitment. 

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At Stanford, sustainability has been ingrained into every single university activity, from the way it educates its students to how it conducts research, operates its buildings and supports campus life. 

The university-wide Sustainable Stanford initiative is what drives these efforts. This holistic approach to going green is why sustainability is so deeply entrenched in the university’s mission as an educator and so apparent across all its activities.

Ongoing conservation initiatives at the university’s Redwood campus contribute towards its carbon-free and zero-waste goals, among other key sustainability targets.

The school also encourages staff, faculty and student participation in a variety of ways, with countless sustainability programmes and campaigns designed to further the agenda across campus and keep the climate conversation alive.

Sustainability at Stanford
Stanford’s student and faculty communities are actively involved in the school’s sustainability initiatives. Source: Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto/Sustainable Stanford

For example, the university’s My Cardinal Green programme rewards faculty, students and staff for sustainable actions across areas like energy, water, transportation, food, waste, campus life, and purchasing.

The rewards system is run via an online tracking system built by Stanford’s IT teams. Participation is open to anyone with an SUNet ID and from their answers to an initial registration survey, the system is able to tailor the experience to the individual’s needs and interests.

This means the individual indicates what kind of sustainable actions best suit their lifestyle on campus and the system will then offer suggested actions that they could complete. Once completed and verified by the system, points will be awarded to the participant based on the difficulty level of the action.

Earning a 100 points means the participant is eligible to receive a reward of their choice–a US$75 cash reward (US$250 for building managers), a sustainability enhancing item or experience, or charitable donation equivalent to that amount. The participant can also keep earning points after redeeming the incentive, and will be eligible for additional rewards as they continue to do so.

This is gamification with a sustainability twist, and an extremely clever way to spread climate awareness and encourage participation among Stanford’s student and staff communities.

Introducing sustainable procurement at Stanford

But that’s not all. Whilst the abovementioned activities ensure goods and services at Stanford are used and disposed off sustainably, they don’t necessarily place a spotlight on the school’s purchasing behaviour.

Enter sustainable procurement.

As part of its Long-Rang Planning process goal of generating zero waste by 2030, Stanford introduced a set of Responsible Purchasing Guidelines (RPGs) for campus purchasers to consider when spending university money. 

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Stanford’s zero waste goal is to achieve a 90 percent landfill diversion rate (the measure of how much waste is diverted from landfills). Responsible purchasing makes this possible.

The RPGs take a holistic look at purchasing choices, incorporating opportunities for reuse and reduction, and the environmental and social impacts of production, transportation and consumption of necessary products.

In practice, this means that campus purchasers would look for reused furniture before racking up extensive bills for brand new ones, or ensure they buy 100 percent recycled paper, or check the school’s surplus store before going to market for new laboratory supplies.

“Each year, we spend more than US$2.1 billion on goods and services. This collective purchasing power can make a significant impact, both on campus and with industry at large,” Stanford’s Assistant Vice-President of Procurement Services Cindy Wilkinson said in Stanford Daily.

“Sustainability and Procurement Services partnered on these guidelines to ensure that purchasers on campus have the resources to help them exercise their purchasing power and encourage suppliers to act responsibly.” 

Stanford Surplus Sales
Equipment no longer in use at Stanford are not thrown into landfills – they are stored and either sold off or reused when needed. Source: Stanford Surplus Sales

Fahmida Bangert, director of sustainability and SEM business services, said the RPGs offer purchasers an overview of considerations when acquiring goods and services in “high-impact categories” such as furniture, electronics and lab and office supplies.

Purchasers work within the sustainable procurement framework to ensure the university is buying items and services that are environmentally-friendly, socially-responsible and ethically-sourced, and yet at the same time, are able to meet the institution’s research and business needs.

“What we’re really working toward is a responsible materials management loop, where you are minimising waste with the purchase decision, and further able to reuse or remake the majority of what you consume, to regenerate resources,” she explained.

Significant impact

The RPGs are already showing promising results.

Bangert said in some categories like electronics, more than 90 percent of purchases fall within the school’s sustainable procurement standards.

The hope, she said, is to have the same result across the board with all university purchase items, as the guidelines grow more popular.

“We are piloting tools to aid campus purchasers in spending responsibly and to collect more data about consumer habits.

“This will help provide insight as we consider future opportunities,” she explained.

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In addition, other sustainability-driven practices within the university ecosystem that require interdepartmental coordination and organisation also help support these goals.

“For example, the Cardinal Print programme offers centralised print services to reduce consumption and verifies that printing materials meet the university guidelines.”

But that’s not all. As Wilkinson highlighted, Stanford’s sustainable procurement policy has other spillover effects and these go well outside the university walls.

According to the school: “The power of purchasing also influences suppliers to act responsibly and consider the whole life cycle of their products and services.”

To meet their sustainability standards and maximise resource efficiency, purchasers would be looking to source products from eco-conscious suppliers, which means companies wanting to do business with the school would need to ensure their products and services are environmentally friendly.

Bangert pointed out that beyond reducing waste at Stanford, the university’s practices have the power to influence the entire resource consumption life cycle from production to transportation.

“So, the potential results from an institution that prioritises responsible purchasing are substantial.”

What’s next?

“In the future, we will work to integrate responsible purchasing up and down the procurement pipeline.

“We recognise that the campus community is interested in – and supportive of – responsible purchasing, so we remain committed to providing resources that make it simple and straightforward to do so,” Wilkinson said.

These resources are as Bangert mentioned earlier: tools to help purchasers find products that fall within the school’s sustainable procurement guidelines.

Celebrating Sustainability Festival,
Bangert (second right) says the university is aiming to create a responsible materials management loop to achieve its zero-waste target. Source: Sustainable Stanford

The school is also piloting an external product lookup tool whereby users can search for and compare products according to spend category, all of which meet the institution’s sustainability standards.

Purchasing behaviour is also tracked, with decisions in support of responsible purchasing garnering points for the purchaser in My Cardinal Green. This means purchasers are incentivised for sticking to the university’s sustainable procurement practices, giving them added impetus to contribute.

Further to that is conducting data analysis on consumer consumption habits, which Bangert said will help inform future programmes.

“Because purchasing is so contingent on user norm and cultural behavior, we will use the data captured from this pilot to help inform future programs,” Bangert said.

“We also plan to undertake an internal inventory of Scope 3 emissions – meaning indirect emissions from sources that occur as a result of an institution’s operations, but from sources not owned or controlled by the institution – in the coming year to better understand in which areas purchases can have the most significant impact.”

“These new guidelines are a starting point,” she added. “Imagine if we can get to a place where reuse and sharing becomes more prevalent on campus than purchasing new items.”

While Stanford is by no means the only university to employ sustainable procurement, its efforts, when taken together with its campus-wide sustainability initiatives, are certainly commendable.

And when it comes to reversing the threat of climate change, every little bit counts towards the whole. It’s about doing something, doing it now and getting as many people on board as possible.

It is this sense of urgency that’s made going green at Stanford about more than just policies and guidelines–it’s about a whole new way of life.