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Green procurement: good news waiting to be told

by Dave Todd

For all the emphasis the federal government has placed in recent years on taking more "environmentally friendly" approaches to planning, procurement and managing its day-to-day operations, there is one glaring gap: Little emphasis is placed on telling this story to Canadians.

In many ways Canada is seen as an international leader in striving to "green" the way it does public purchasing, but oddly enough few Canadians know about it. This is despite the fact that the federal government, in its own words, currently has about "224,000 employees, 21.4 million hectares of land under direct management, 59,000 buildings and facilities, 25,000 motor vehicles and spends more than $8 billion annually in purchases of goods and services." And some senior federal officials describe Ottawa's current annual spending power for domestic goods and services as closer to $12 billion than $8 billion.

Since 1995 the government has won widespread recognition internationally as a leader in devising strategies to leverage its purchasing power and achieve greener purchasing standards across the economy. Canada is regarded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose secretary-general is former Canadian federal cabinet minister Don Johnston, as a model nation among advanced industrialized countries in developing public sector green procurement practices. So the public relations lapse that fails to tap into what is in many ways an obvious "good news" story is even more odd. The lack of an effective master strategy for engaging Canadians has left approaches targeted to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels and other pollution abatement priorities largely unrecognized by the public.

Stories about how government and business are cooperating together could be a big win for Canadian authorities domestically, at a time of rising concern about the state of the world's environment. All the more so as the Chretien government can claim few successes on the international stage in terms of convincing other countries, especially European nations, to go along with its preferred approach on meeting Kyoto Protocol goals to limit the impact of global warming in future decades.

The clearly fragmented federal message, at least the lack of a visibly effective one domestically, suggests a serious lack of overall strategic direction or leadership. Ottawa's pursuit of its "green objective," leveraging clout arising out of annual federal procurement spending, is marked by a diffusion of effort that devolves policy management into inconsequence. The result is that dozens of departments and agencies take individual approaches within the loose bounds of broad cross-government directives. It looks like a classic case of everyone wanting to take the glory and little of the responsibility for the day-to-day work of making things happen.

A handful of stalwart federal officials at the top and at mid-management levels are left holding the bag because little is happening to effect greener procurement, at least in comparison to funds and bureaucratic time invested in the effort.

At both the national and at lower levels of government, authorities routinely argue - behind the scenes - that a strategy of commanding higher environmental quality standards through environmentally enlightened buying choices ought to be a priority in determining how taxpayers' dollars are spent on goods and services.

Interviews with a range of federal officials at various levels demonstrate that the lack of a consistent set of national standards and central flow point for enabling suppliers of goods and services to work with federal authorities across government has obscured several successes under a federal government-sponsored environmental action program.

A classic case is Interface Flooring Systems of Belleville, Ont., a subsidiary of Dupont, Inc., which has pioneered a model way of saving the federal government money while protecting the environment. Essentially, the long-term deal - with Environment Canada the primary partner - involves Interface providing carpeting for federal buildings that, at the end of their wear, the company will take back at their own expense with minimal cost to the environment.

Interface's carpeting, made by one of the least environmentally invasive industrial techniques associated with any rug product anywhere, is a world-class "best practice" success story. Since the mid-1990s, usage of the technique has led to reductions in factory air pollution emissions and energy production needs on the order of two-thirds of what used to be the case. Industrial waste output has been slashed by about 90 percent.

But how many companies that could similarly benefit from such a high-profile association know about this achievement or others like it?

Jean Bilodeau is director general of administration for Environment Canada and is Canada's representative on OECD and United Nations Environment Programme bodies concerned with greener procurement. In essence, he is the Canadian government's top strategist on environmentally sensitive energy procurement matters from a broad public policy development perspective. The minister he reports to, David Anderson, is also a committed environmentalist.

Bilodeau worries that savings to the economy as a whole - at least outside government - tend not to be considered as much as they should be in the calculations or considerations of day-to-day accounting or budgetary projections for the future. This makes it all the more important to adopt public procurement approaches that could effect change. He makes the case that, while it may be a struggle to alter old ways of doing things, innovative "thinking out of the box" is indeed making headway in getting bureaucrats and external suppliers moving in a more eco-friendly direction.

As an example, Bilodeau points to the fact that federal bodies are even making their purchasing clout count when it comes to where public servants stay while travelling on government business. A prime example is the development of a "green hotels" program across Canada and abroad that rates accommodation on eco-friendliness.

In Alberta, electricity deregulation has prompted some major hotels to purchase their electricity only from eco-friendly sources, such as windmills, and to portray their "green" advantage as a reason to choose their hostelry.

The federal government has committed to purchasing all of the electricity needs for its buildings in Alberta from renewable energy sources such as windpower, and has similar commitments in Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island. Yet, outside of these provinces there has been no substantial effort to publicize such initiatives - despite what environmental organizations say is a burgeoning appetite for just such federally led advocacy and leadership by example.

In some departments, administrative streamlining has now led to as much as one-third of staff being issued government credit cards. What, it might be asked, could this possibly have to do with the greening of procurement? Perhaps one big thing, as it turns out. Treasury Board is examining whether government credit cards issued to public servants might be utilized in ways that would facilitate discounts from environmentally friendly suppliers.

"Green procurement really touches far more than what a lot of people think," says Bilodeau.

People working with other levels of government agree heartily with that view. One example is Michael Wiggin, senior manager of "green funds" for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). Wiggin, until recently manager of the community energy systems working group within Natural Resources Canada, is on secondment helping the FCM channel a $125 million program for environmentally friendly municipal development. He sees huge potential in leveraging federal funds to bankroll strategic relationships between local government and private sector energy services companies whose expertise might help them manage local needs more effectively.

Wiggin says energy services companies - "Escos" in industry jargon - are ones that can offer particular appeal to local governments in their attempt to manage their increasingly complex needs and range of choices. Deregulation, new technologies and other factors coming to the fore can bewilder the average town or city council. The FCM is empowered to administer and distribute federal funding and, he says, "to find those companies that really understand municipal business and work with it."

On the green front, in relation to public procurement issues, adds Wiggin, "The biggest thing I'm starting to notice is that there's a lot of similar activity going on right across the country. So one of the biggest things FCM is trying to do now is interconnect interests, get them in touch with each other, exchange results and aim for the future as an accelerating rate of technology transfer introduces innovative ideas."

Governmental support bodies like the FCM seem to grasp the picture. For some reason, the federal government has, as yet, failed to capitalize on such enthusiasm. As of January, the FCM was swamped with hundreds of applications for access to federal funding for green projects, funding available out of a facility announced in the federal government's budget - one year ago.

Dave Todd is Canadian correspondent for FT Energy Insight, an online energy news service of the Financial Times of London. He is also a 16-year veteran of daily newspaper and news service journalism in Canada.



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