5 Common Myths About Purchasing Sustainably

July 31, 2015

Ready for checkout? Not so fast!

1. Purchasing locally = purchasing sustainably.

Not so much. Buying local may cut down on carbon emissions, but if the actual product you are purchasing was not locally made or grown, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. What are you actually buying? How much do you know about where and how that product was made and who (yes, think humans) made it? If the product has eco labels you trust and your local vendor can give you informed and trustworthy assurances regarding planet-friendly materials and manufacturing processes and fair labor practices, you may be good to go. If not, and your local vendor is importing goods from offshore factories or domestic producers that fail to abide by sustainable principles, then you’re not so good to go.

Sustainable purchasing is about supply chain transparency. It’s important to know the story behind the products you are buying, not just where the vendor is located. If your vendor has no insight into his or her supply chain, shop on – somewhere else.

2. Purchasing sustainable products cost more.

Let’s talk about cost. Is a product’s cost simply the $10 you paid for it at the store or is it the social and environmental impact associated with that product? Trick question, it’s both. In economics term, we call this impact an externality. Some products create positive externalities (education!), while others create negative ones (pollution). The social cost of a product is the private cost, or the price the customer pays, plus the externality. Can you guess what type of externality unsustainable materials and processes create? That’s right, negative. Take illegally or irresponsibly sourced rainforest wood, for example. The product you bought may be a small portion of that wood, but the impact of the reckless logging trade it came out of is gargantuan. Deforestation at the rate it’s at now is set to wipe out all of our forests in 100 years, leaving 70 percent of the planet’s terrestrial animals homeless and 1.6 billion people without livelihoods. Sounds pretty costly, right?

But since most people associate cost with an item’s dollar price, we’ll touch on that too. Yes, sustainable products are sometimes more expensive than their not-so-green counterparts for consumers and producers alike because there can be more cost involved in sourcing materials or bringing products to market without exploiting workers or the environment. Even so, a survey conducted by GreenBiz found that more than a third of businesses said they had trouble keeping up with customer demand for their sustainable products and services. That means businesses are seeing a return on their efforts to go green, and customers are willing to pay a little bit more for their greener products. Another article published in the Huffington Post using data pulled from a recent study found that 1 in 3 millennials look for brands that make a positive impact on the world. The percent of consumers interested in buying from socially responsible businesses is highest among young consumers, aged 18 to 24, and degrades gradually with age. As millennials become the main purchasers in our economy, it is reasonable to project that demand for sustainable goods will increase. And, as demand for greener products rises, businesses will become more efficient at bringing the products to market, more businesses will enter, competition will increase, and pricing will become more competitive. Further green innovation will ensue. That’s good news all around.

Companies that put in the effort and expense to go green realize that doing so is an investment. It’s an investment in the future prosperity of their business and the planet. Purchasing sustainably is not too costly to do; it’s far too costly not to do.

3. Sustainability isn’t required unless there’s consumer demand.

For any business that has ever thought “our customers don’t demand it, so we don’t have to provide it”, this one is for you. Customer demand is one factor that drives sustainable purchasing, but it surely isn’t the only one. Sustainability is a movement – a transition in the global population’s way of thinking. Businesses, governments, NGOs, and other institutions all have a responsibility to purchase and produce in a way that promotes a greener, healthier global economy. Responsible purchasing decisions drive positive impacts, such as responsible forest management and recycling, and deter destructive activities, including illegal logging, deforestation, and poaching. Corporate and institutional purchasers can affect lasting and meaningful change in our economy. By engaging in sustainable procurement, they and their supply chain partners are influencing market behavior in a way that contributes to the greater goal of environmental stewardship. And, regardless of consumer demand, organizations that reduce their environmental footprint generally reduce their operating costs through energy savings, waste reduction, and material reuse.

4. Sustainability causes a rift between purchasers and suppliers.

We’re not talking fistfights here, but some people assume that the push for sustainable purchasing creates a divide between purchasers and suppliers. In reality it’s quite the contrary. Sustainable purchasing efforts offer an opportunity for purchasers and suppliers to collaborate. The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC), for example, offers a platform for professionals to consult about the standardization and optimization of sustainable procurement across industries and institutions. SPLC considers the views and values of all stakeholders, including purchasers and suppliers, when setting forth optimal procurement guidelines. Fortunately, this is evidence of changing times. Sustainable purchasing is no longer a top-down, price-controlled process, in which purchasers are the only ones dictating the rules of the game.

5. Sustainability is just too complicated.

For starters, few things in life are just too complicated to do. If we can put people on the moon, then we, as consumers and producers, can make environmentally and socially conscious purchasing decisions. There are multiple organizations out there that are designed to help purchasers make those exact decisions. The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council is in the process of creating comprehensive guidance for corporate and institutional purchasers on how to spend in a way that drives social, environmental and economic sustainability. Eco labels and certification programs are a part of this guidance and can be extremely useful for driving even small purchasing decisions. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified products are made with wood from well-managed forests, for example. Fair Trade certification is used for agricultural goods and indicates that the farmers are paid a fair price and enjoy safe working conditions. Energy Star, an EPA initiative, denotes the most energy efficient products according to results from third-party laboratory testing. There is a credible certification scheme for just about every product out there, so do a quick search to find out which one you and your company can trust and try out multiple if you are unsure. There are also membership organizations, such as the Green Business Network, with which businesses can affiliate themselves to help reaffirm their green business commitments to their customers and to collaborate with industry partners about new approaches to sustainable business.

Bottom-line: if you are looking to purchase sustainably, as a consumer or producer, there are countless resources to help you get started and, eventually, step up your game. Even the smallest changes in procurement can create large positive impacts. Keep it simple, and you’ll keep moving forward.

     Okay, now that we’ve dispelled these myths and uncovered the truth about sustainable purchasing, you are all set for checkout! Just remember, whether you are participating in the market as an individual, a business, a nonprofit, or a political or educational institution, your purchasing decisions make a lasting difference in our current and future global economy. What difference will you choose to make?

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