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Transforming Markets and Practice through Environmental Procurement. Interview with Shirli Axelrod, City of Seattle

Shirli As you know the theme of this blog is to provide inspiration and practical advice to help build individual and organizational capacity in the realm of sustainability and green building. Our work with you has been to assist you with the City of Seattle’s considerable environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) efforts. Why is this work a priority for the City? SHIRLI: Good question. As you know I work for the solid waste division of the Seattle Public Utility (SPU). To reduce solid waste, SPU encourages businesses and households to recycle. But recycling doesn’t work if there’s no market for recycled products. So the City started imposing upon itself requirements to purchase products that had recycled and/or recyclable content or were reusable. That was our first impetus.

Secondly, when you start looking at your purchases from an environmental standpoint, you realize the waste aspect is only one of the impacts – and that these impacts are inter-related. You realize that each product and even the manner in which you purchase and use those products represents an expenditure in energy, water, raw materials, and production of unwanted consequences, such as pollution or poor health. So we moved beyond the issues of waste reduction.

Thirdly, it is important for us to walk the talk. If we are telling our utility customers to save water, make less waste, the City should do the same. It’s a matter of integrity.

And finally, because we have significant buying power, and can combine forces with others in collaborative purchasing, we do much to transform the market.

IMG_3655I know there are lots of EPP projects you can talk about. Can you pick two to share with our readers? Certainly. What comes to mind first is the Green Office Fair we did last fall. This grew out of the City’s Paper Cuts Campaign, but concerned multiple ways to make office work more green AND more effective. In other words, we focused on environmental preferable practices that actually solve other problems. And what was most exciting to me was that this was not a vendor fair. Presenters were agency staff from around the region that had solutions to share. For example, animal control folks demonstrated volunteer web-based tracking system. (They have a huge number of volunteers). This saved them a lot of paper AND time. This same idea can be applied in many other circumstances. This was a great opportunity to share practical solutions and learn from each other.

The second thing that comes to mind is our work with regard to bio-based oil, a less-toxic/less polluting product. Reducing toxics exposure and pollution is the highest priority for me among environmental purchasing factors.

Why is that? Reducing toxics is an environmental justice issue as well as a pollution concern. As a public agency we are concerned about public health and pollution.

So, what did you like most about how you addressed the issue of bio-based oil? Every time we produced something for city staff, we presented it to private professionals as well. So we got double duty out of our effort. And, like the Green Office Fair, we relied on folks who actually use (or could use) the product day to day. In this case we sought out user experience in both the public and private sector. Panelists included a mechanic and maintenance supervisor for example, as well as an equipment dealer. They weren’t all experienced with bio-based oil so they asked good questions of each other. The other thing we did was test out some of our users concerns. We tested bio-based oil in a dozen or so pieces of equipment, and then asked the operators about their experience. We were able to report on these results.

With regard to EPP, what do you think the big opportunities are there now for municipalities or large enterprises? Although public agencies are collaborating a great deal now, collaborating in a variety of forms across public and private lines is much less explored. Something the City of Seattle is doing is allowing contractors with the City to purchase office supplies under the City’s contract as long as the vendor consents. (Editor’s Note: O’Brien & Company is taking advantage of this program). I think there’s more potential to be tapped in this regard.

Another area of opportunity is looking at purchasing contracts themselves. The green option – and that includes repairable, upgradable, and durable options, in addition to non-toxic, recycled, etc. – should be the default, not a soft substitute. This is especially important where you have lots of choices where product specifications can’t cover it all. We need to let manufacturers know we don’t want lots of “bad” products to choose from.

A third area of opportunity is connecting EPP to social responsibility and environmental justice. People talk about green jobs. A job that makes people sick is not a green job. Building a greater awareness about how and when negative environmental impacts occur, all along the life of a product has not been fully addressed.

A fourth opportunity is to figure out how to capture more recovered material in manufacturing here, rather than sending it away to be remanufactured. Where there’s industry there are jobs. And finally, there’s the issue of packaging. So much of what's still in the waste stream is packaging. This material is not necessarily intrinsically bad, but it can be short-lived or polluting. Can it be functional (for storage) or can be dissolved – like a “seed” cup? How much time would be saved in eliminating the unpacking now involved when products are delivered? Can products be delivered in a container that becomes the return container? The City gets our office supplies delivered in a box that can be reused.

If you were starting out today, what would you be focusing on? Do you have tips for the next generation or individuals just venturing into this arena?

  1. Don’t spend a lot of time writing manuals. They rarely get used and are out of date before you’re done.
  2. Spend more time listening to users about what they need. You’ll get their buy-in, but perhaps more importantly, you’ll be able to give them what they need! And don’t just talk with people who are doing the green thing. Talk to everybody and bring people along.
  3. Collaborate across agencies and across public and private sector lines. Share information, such as specifications, borrow solutions. Go shopping together to use your buying power. You may not have to create a mandate about non-toxics, if you simply tell the market in a strong enough voice that that’s what you want).
  4. Field test products. You’ll create “experts” on the product who will be much more convincing than you could ever be. And you’ll avoid specifying a problem product.
  5. Check out what other folks are doing. We have a lot of resources on the City of Seattle’s Purchasing Website.

What’s next for you? In addition to exploring the opportunities I’ve already mentioned, I’d like to work on what’s still in the garbage that we'd like to get out. How can we prevent it from getting in the garbage in the first place? Can this material be perceived as industrial raw material? What would it to make it productive? Here, locally? In particular I’ve been focused on carpet recycling and products made with recovered carpet ingredients.

Any final advice? Yes. Find the changes people have wanted to make all along, give them permission, and give them what they need to make those changes.

Shirli Axelrod, Senior Environmental Analyst, has been working with the City of Seattle for over 20 years on environmental programs, first on hazardous waste, Superfund issues, and since 1998 on EPP issues when she drafted the City's first Environmental Purchasing Policy. She is Chair of the City’s Interdepartmental Green Purchasing Team, sponsored by the City of Seattle’s Purchasing Office. You can contact her at This interview was conducted by Kathleen O’Brien, Editor of Building Capacity Blog, and President of O’Brien & Company, which has assisted Shirli in EPP work (and enjoying it!) on multiple projects.

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