Procuring for Sustainability: Prioritizing Preferences
Sustainability: Avoidance of natural resource depletion, able to maintain production rate perpetually at a constant level
Green procurement: Procurement of goods or products that do not deplete natural resources
Climate protection networks: Networks (often of local governments) focused on long-term policies to mitigate climate change
There is a robust and growing literature on the adoption of sustainability policies in US local governments. Scholars have examined locality involvement in climate protection networks, sustainability policy adoption, and the allocation of resources for sustainability-oriented responsibilities (Hawkins et al. 2015). This chapter addresses the dearth of scholarship in the public administration literature on one of the most significant ways that local governments have of advancing sustainability goals: the adoption of green procurement policies (Testa et al. 2016). Specifically, it is tested whether three factors commonly found to impact sustainability policy adoption – general and sustainability-specific professional management (Terman and Feiock 2015), membership in climate protection networks, and interest group support (Deslatte and Swann 2015) – influence the adoption of green procurement policies (GPPs).
What Is Green Procurement Policy?
Green procurement, also known as environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP), is defined according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “selecting products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose” (US EPA 2000) (The National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) defines GPP as “purchasing a product that has a lesser or reduced negative effect or increased positive effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products that serve the same purpose” (NASPO 2016). Similarly, the European Commission defines GPP as “a process whereby public authorities seek to procure goods, services and works with a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle when compared to goods, services and works with the same primary function that would otherwise be procured”). GPPs can be suggestive or mandatory, with some public organizations requiring the use of environmentally preferable criteria in purchasing decisions, while others simply suggest substitutions where available and when cost considerations allow. This flexibility is particularly important because, while organizations that buy green are perceived as socially responsible, the practical benefits are difficult to systematically capture (Carter 2005). Moreover to see these benefits, a considerable up-front investment is often required – the gains from which might not even be realized (Carter 2005).
Determinants of Green Procurement in Public Organizations
While clearly a growing practice across both public and private organizations in the USA (Roman 2017), GPPs have received minimal empirical attention – particularly in the public administration literature (Roman 2017). Much of the literature contains case studies or descriptive analyses – which have limited generalizability (Roman 2017). For example, some scholars have examined major procurement projects in individual states such as Massachusetts (Coggburn and Rahm 2005) and California (Case 2007). Lange et al. (2014) observed that public procurement overall and green procurement specifically are more commonly researched in Europe than the USA.
Of the GPP empirical research in public organizations in the American setting, two particular pieces of scholarship stand out. In a random sample of green procurement plans in US counties, Smith and Terman (2016) find that GPPs have minimal adoption. Approximately one third of the counties have formal GPPs. Of that third, policies range from strict requirements such as a prohibition on the use of styrofoam or products from virgin wood to suggestions that products made from recycled material should be procured when possible.
The second study, conducted by Roman (2017), uses the term “sustainable procurement” (1048) rather than green procurement or environmentally preferable purchasing. Sustainable procurement is therein defined as “purchasing, contracting and supply practices, emphasizing sustainability and thereby seeking to accomplish sustainable outcomes” (Roman 2017, 1049) (NIGP defines sustainable procurement as “a purchasing and investment process that takes into account the economic, environmental and social impacts of the entity’s spending. Sustainable procurement allows organizations to meet their needs for goods, services, construction works and utilities in a way that achieves value for money on a whole-life basis in terms of generating benefits not only to organization, but also to society and the economy, while remaining within the carrying capacity of the environment” (NIGP 2012, 1)). Roman (2017) develops one of the first frameworks to explain the adoption of organizational sustainability procurement practices. He finds a relationship between sustainable procurement practices and various dimensions of leadership, stakeholder expectations, and interdepartmental collaboration. This chapter builds on Roman’s work and tests whether the traditional determinants of sustainability activity also influence GPP adoption.
General and Sustainability-Specific Professional Management
Professional management that influences the likelihood of adopting sustainability policies can be divided into two component parts: general and sustainability-specific (Terman and Feiock 2015). General management may be understood in terms of form of government – mayor-council or council-manager. Council-manager governments produce more efficient outcomes, while mayor-council governments are more responsive to the local constituency (Feiock et al. 2003). City managers are professionalized to focus on responsible prudent management; elected officials may not have the background – or incentive – to do so. This is because the incentive structure of the latter depends on reelection (Feiock et al. 2003), while the incentive structure of the former is based on the ability to efficiently and professionally manage the information and human and technological resources of a given government (Terman and Feiock 2015. While efficiency and responsiveness are not mutually exclusive, there is evidence to suggest that the professional norms and career interests of city managers incentivize innovation and fiscal prudence in internal government operations (Terman and Feiock 2015).
GPPs are internal operations that have the potential to make governments more efficient. Furthermore, GPPs can have a number of efficiency gains for the internal operational functions of governments. As such, it is suspected that local governments with heightened levels of general professional management – council-manager forms of government – are more likely to adopt GPPs (H1a).
While the same directional relationship for sustainability-specific knowledge-based management is expected, the reasons are somewhat different. The dedication of municipal resources for sustainability-oriented purposes represents the prioritization of sustainability goals and the knowledge-based capacity to successfully pursue those goals (Hawkins et al. 2015). While some governments may give lip service to green management and sustainability, dedicating staffing resources for the sole purpose of managing these programs suggests a genuine desire to achieve sustainability-oriented goals. Moreover, having these dedicated resources means that the attention of policymakers can be drawn to these programs because there will be individuals advocating on their behalf. Furthermore, the resources and expertise accrued by governments that have dedicated resources to sustainability also give governments the ability to be successful in GPP and sustainability-oriented policies. Thus, with the likelihood of achieving programmatic goals, governments will be predisposed to adopt these programs. It is suspected that local governments with sustainability-specific professional management are more likely to adopt GPPs (H1b).
Climate Protection Networks
Local governments have been involved in various climate protection networks such as the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) Climate Protection Agreement (CPA) and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). Membership in these organizations can represent both a symbolic and substantive move toward the prioritization of sustainability.
Following the Kyoto Protocol agreement, USMC members began signing the CPA, and by the end of 2005, there were 141 signatories (USMC signatories made three particular commitments: (1) meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets, using anti-sprawl and land use policies, urban forest restoration projects, public information campaigns, etc.; (2) urge state and federal governments to enact policies and programs that meet or exceed the US suggested greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, suggested in the Kyoto Protocol – 7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012 – and (3) urge Congress to pass greenhouse gas reduction legislation, thereby establishing a national emission trading system). Similarly, with a considerable membership fee, ICLEI was intended to provide local governments with the knowledge and capacity to manage and build their cities more sustainably. Both of these organizations are representative of a commitment to green infrastructure and climate change mitigation and adaptation. The resources and time that go into being members of the networks indicate a willingness to engage in sustainability, and the information that they provide will likely support local governments in the successful adoption and implementation of GPPs. Thus, it is hypothesized that local governments that are part of climate protection and sustainability networks are more likely to adopt GPPs (H2).
Interest Group Support
Local interest groups have considerable influence on sustainability policy adoption. Either through their business concerns or political preferences, local groups can put pressure on governments to adopt their preferences. These groups have been referred to as “demand side factors” (Bae and Feiock 2013) because, in the political market, they are policy demanders seeking the adoption of policies that benefit their interests. These groups include specialized interests such as local businesses, chambers of commerce, and environmental interests in addition to the broader general public (Deslatte and Swann 2015).
Local business and chamber of commerce groups have a professional and pecuniary interest in sustainability policy adoption. In some cases, these groups are providers of public goods and services for local governments. Thus, changes to procurement policies may threaten their ability to make a profit. Furthermore, as some of the work on economic development implies, these business-oriented organizations may see sustainability policies as a threat because they perceive that economic growth and environmentalism operate at cross-purposes. In part, this is because economic growth and the environment have often been considered at odds. Thus, the degree to which these groups support or oppose sustainability policy is important.
Other groups shown to influence sustainability policy are environmental groups. In the same way that economic development groups create headaches for local governments when sustainability policies are advanced that they perceive to be against their interests, environmental groups draw considerable attention to governments that are not engaged in environmentally friendly policies. These groups exert direct pressure through lobbying, campaign endorsements/donations, litigation, etc. They can also exert indirect pressure through public information campaigns that attempt to persuade the local populace of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability.
As such, the last group hypothesized herein that has considerable influence over local government policies is the local constituency (i.e., the general public as a whole). In comparison to other levels of government, local governments are the closest to their citizens; therefore, in the political market, if citizens demand green policies, local governments experience considerable pressure (Bae and Feiock 2013). Thus, it is expected that local governments where interest groups such as the local chamber of commerce and local business groups, environmental groups, and the general public support energy conservation and sustainability efforts will be more likely to adopt green procurement practices (H3a).
Operationalizations and descriptive statistics
Green procurement policies
Does your city provide guidance on eco-friendly practices in any of the following ways? Stipulates/mandates the use of eco-friendly vendors/products [No = 0, Yes = 1]
Source: EECBG 2012 Survey
Does your city provide guidance on eco-friendly practices in any of the following ways?
Maintains vendor list
Maintains product list
[No = 0; yes adopted before EECBG or yes adopted after EECBG = 1]
Source: EECBG 2012 Survey
General professional management
City-manager form of government
Source: ICMA Form of Government 2011
Sustainability-specific professional management
Dichotomous variable for whether city has dedicated staffing for sustainability
Source: EECBG 2011 Survey
Mayor is a signatory of US Climate Protection Agreement by 2010
[Yes = 1, No = 0]
Source: US Conference of Mayors
Municipality is an ICLEI member by 2010
[Yes = 1, No = 0]
Source: ICLEI Cities for Sustainability 2010
Interest group support
Chamber of commerce
To what extent would you say that the following individuals or groups support or oppose energy conservation and sustainability efforts by your city government?
Chamber of commerce
[Strongly oppose, moderately oppose, neutral, moderately support, strongly support]
Source: EECBG 2011 Survey
% Bachelor’s degree
Percentage over age 25 population with bachelor’s degree
Source: US Census 2010
City council political ideology
Percentage of unemployed individuals
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010
Population (per 1000)
Source: US Census of Population and Housing 2010
Own-source municipal revenue (as opposed to intergovernmental sources)
Source: US Economic Census 2007
Median home value
Municipal median home value
Source: US Census of Population and Housing 2010
The dependent variable of the adoption of GPPs is measured in two ways: (1) maintaining a green public procurement vendor and product list and (2) mandating green product and vendors. The former – permissive procurement policy – was measured using two survey questions asking “whether the city provides guidance on eco-friendly practices” (1) by maintaining a vendor list and (2) maintaining a product list. If a municipality answered yes to at least one of the questions, permissive policy was coded as one. These two permissive practices have a tetrachoric correlation of 0.945 and a standard error of 0.022 (p < 0.00). This suggests that they are similar enough to combine into one variable (see Appendix A for a breakdown of this variable). Mandated procurement policy was measured by asking whether the city “stipulates/mandates the use of eco-friendly vendors/products.” The tetrachoric correlation between the two dependent variables is 0.706, with a standard error of 0.0631 (p < 0.00). Thus, they have a strong correlation, and we made the choice to treat them as two separate variables.
Generalized professional management was measured by whether the municipality has a council-manager form of government, while sustainability-related professional management was measured using a survey question asking whether the city has dedicated staffing for sustainability. Participation in climate protection networks was operationalized using 2010 International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) membership and whether the municipality was a signatory of the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. Interest group support was operationalized using survey questions that asked respondents to gauge, “To what extent would you say that the following individuals or groups support or oppose energy conservation and sustainability efforts by your city government?” Local socioeconomic characteristics of the municipality were included as control variables. Table 1 contains the sources, operationalizations, and descriptive statistics for the variables in the analysis.
Results and Discussion
To test the hypotheses proposed here, two logit analyses were estimated: one for maintaining a green public procurement vendor and product list – a permissive policy – and another for mandating green public procurement vendors and products. The results lend some credence to our arguments that the determinants of sustainability can also help predict GPP adoption. Roughly 24% of local governments in the sample have permissive GPPs – they maintain either or both a green vendor or product list. However, only 13% have adopted a mandated GPP. The overall fit for both models is statistically significant at p < 0.00, with a Wald chi-square of 61.52 and 47.67, for mandated and permissive policies, respectively. McFadden’s pseudo r-square suggests that the explanatory power of the mandated GPP model is greater (pseudo r2 = 0.2138) than that of the permissive model (pseudo r2 = 0.1310).
Both general and sustainability-specific professional management were significant in the model. The odds that a council-manager form of government will adopt a mandated GPP in comparison with a council-manager form of government are 2.255–1 (126% greater). The odds that a council-manager form of government will adopt a permissive GPP in comparison with a council-manager form of government are 1.35–1 (35% greater). Thus, it would appear that governments focused on the internal operational efficiency (i.e., council-manager rather than mayor-council) are more likely to adopt GPPs (see Bae and Feiock 2013). In comparison to governments that do not have dedicated sustainability staffing, the odds that governments with dedicated sustainability staff will adopt a mandated GPP are 1.709–1 (71% greater) and 2.173–1 (117% greater) for permissive GPP adoption. This supports the perspective that GPPs can be considered a fundamentally internal activity – like government energy and conservation building programs (Bae and Feiock 2013). And more still, professionalized management seems to recognize the usefulness of these forms of programs. This finding is important because it challenges the assertion that environmentally motivated policies operate at cross-purposes to efficiency and fiscal prudence. Sustainability-specific management also had a positive effect.
ICLEI membership had a positive statistical effect on the likelihood of both mandated and permissive GPP adoption, while the US MCPA signatory status only had an effect on permissive GPP status. In comparison to non-signatories, the odds that local governments that are signatories of the US MCPA will adopt a permissive GPP are 1.578–1 (58% greater). For ICLEI members, the odds for adopting a mandated GPP are 2.492–1 (143% greater) and 3–1 (200% greater) for permissive GPP adoption. Part of this difference may be that ICLEI membership is somewhat more substantive, requiring a considerable membership, while signatory of the MCPA is a one-time occurrence for a local government. For example, new local government leadership may choose to cancel their ICLEI membership, whereas new leaders in signatory cities may change municipal priorities without very much effort. It is important to state that neither organization has a policy where they remove members that are not meeting their policy expectations; thus, both organizations are fundamentally voluntary with little enforcement teeth. However, ICLEI requires more skin in the game because of their membership fee and ongoing socialization through conferences and other professionalization opportunities.
The results for interest group support are equally strong. For every one unit increase in perceived chamber of commerce support, the odds of mandated GPP adoption are 1.131–1 (a 13% increase); the odds of a permissive GPP adoption are 1.245 (24% increase). For every one unit of perceived environmental group support, the odds of mandated GPP adoption are 1.339–1 (34% increase), while the odds of permissive GPP adoption are 1.735–1 (74% increase). For every one unit increase in local business support, the odds for mandated GPP adoption are 2.221–1 (120% increase), while the odds for permissive GPP adoption are 1.665–1 (67% increase).
These results suggest that interest group support of sustainability policies has positive effects on both mandated and permissive GPP adoption. In particular, chamber of commerce and local businesses represent potential vendors and service providers of green products. The adoption of these policies has the potential to affect their bottom lines. The question is whether these groups see GPPs as a form of sustainability policy. If they do, there is reason to question the assumption that sustainability and business interests operate at cross-purposes (for a discussion of this assumption).
Logistic regression results
Climate protection networks
Interest group support
Chamber of Commerce support
Environmental group support
Local business support
% Bachelor’s degree
City council political ideology
% Own-source income
Median home value
n = 451
n = 451
The control variables yielded some interesting findings. The percentage of residents over 25 with bachelor’s degrees is positively associated with local government adoption of both mandated and permissive GPPs. This is in line with other studies suggesting that educational attainment influences the adoption of renewable energy tools and technology innovation/demonstrative projects (Deslatte and Swann 2015). In a somewhat surprising result, local governments with city councils that are perceived to be more liberal are less likely to adopt both mandated and permissive GPPs. One reason for this may be that they are already engaged in considerable sustainability programs that green procurement is less likely to be on their radar. Population density, unemployment rate, and median home value are all positively associated with adoption of both mandated and permissive GPPs. Population density and municipality wealth have been previously associated with the adoption of renewable energy and conservation policy tools. In part, more densely populated areas are more likely to have robust communities with the ability to provide green products. And, municipal wealth, which may be demonstrated through home value, is often associated with the adoption of energy efficiency and conservation policies because these communities can best afford it.
The results here suggest that GPPs should be more widely studied in the sustainability lexicon. All three categories of our variables of interest – professional management, climate protection network membership, and interest group support – had a statistically significant positive effect on GPP adoption. Individually, each of our variables contributes in different ways to this conclusion. The effect of professional management – both general and sustainability-specific – suggests that the fiscal prudence of this green procurement is growing. Similarly, the relationship between climate protection network membership and GPP adoption supports some of the literature on European and North American sustainability policies, which have historically directed governments to use their purchasing power to advance environmentalism (Case 2004). And lastly, the fact that interest group support of sustainability also translates to GPP adoption suggests that there may be a broad group of political interests whose support is needed for their adoption.
Overall, the core contribution of the study is that it isolates one form of sustainability policy – green procurement, a practice that has not been frequently discussed in the sustainability literature. This is important because GPP adoption is one of the most proactive ways that governments engage in sustainability. Taking this argument one step further, one might consider that municipalities engaged in mandated GPPs are truly dedicated to sustainable governance because these policies make a choice between traditional and green product and service purchasing. However, to reliably make this conclusion, GPP adoption must be tested against other forms of sustainability policies to determine levels of commitment. Thus, there additional research needs to be done in terms of comparing sustainability policy adoption with GPP adoption in the same study as dependent variables. Additionally, our measures of sustainability deserve more precision and how different sustainability policies relate to one another.
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