City governments are increasingly recognized as leaders on environmental issues. But one important tool they use to promote sustainability—procurement—sometimes flies under the radar.


According to Alicia Culver, who leads the nonprofit Responsible Purchasing Network, local governments have increasingly embraced sustainable procurement over the last few decades. Municipalities have substantial budgets for maintaining and operating their buildings, vehicle fleets, and other assets. In addition to choosing products that safeguard the local environment and protect the health of their employees and residents, many cities and counties are consciously using their purchasing power to encourage sustainable practices in the broader marketplace.

One of the most challenging aspects of these initiatives is determining exactly which products meet a given city’s sustainability goals, then sharing this information with everyone who needs it. Municipal purchasing is often decentralised, leaving buying decisions to employees with varying degrees of knowledge about sustainability. Meanwhile, the sheer variety of goods available, along with the proliferation of eco-labels and certifications—some more rigorous than others—can make it hard for staffers and people hired for city projects (e.g., architects) to know where to start or what information to trust. 

This is particularly true for product categories that are particularly complex—carpet, for instance. Even respected third-party certifications fail to address a number of concerns around carpet manufacturing, according to Culver.

“Carpet has been very challenging because there are multiple, and sometimes competing, environmental attributes, such as recycled content and toxicity,” she said.

Several years ago, San Francisco decided to take on this challenge. In 2016, when the city’s green building code was being updated to align with LEED v4, the city seized the opportunity to examine its purchasing practices around interior design.

“We started to look at ways that we could push the envelope on healthier interior finishes,” said Jen Jackson, who leads the Toxics Reduction and Healthy Ecosystems Program for the city’s department of the environment, SF Environment. “Carpet being such a huge, huge part of an interior, we tackled that first.”

This initiative built on years of experience in green procurement. Since 2005, SF Environment has led an ambitious effort to direct municipal employees to sustainable options for cleaning products, computers, and other common purchases. It publishes lists of vetted products on a publicly accessible website,, which has become an important resource for city employees and external organisations alike.

“Other people are always watching San Francisco,” Culver said. “A lot of other cities are following their lead, whether they’re using their SF Approved list or their specifications. They definitely set a gold standard for the work they do in sustainable purchasing.”

At the outset of the carpet project, SF Environment looked at existing third-party certifications with product lists to determine whether it could simply copy them into SF Approved. But it found that while the Cradle to Cradle certification addressed many of its needs, it wasn’t a perfect fit. In particular, there were additional chemicals that the city of San Francisco wanted to ensure were banned from its purchase selection.

“We spend more of our waking hours at work than at home, and a lot of us work inside,” said Jessian Choy, a toxics reduction specialist with the city. “So we may be constantly exposed to harmful chemicals.”

To address this and related concerns, SF Environment decided to create its own carpet specification—a kind of Cradle to Cradle plus. Working with Jean Hansen from design firm HDR, it started by researching the chemistry and manufacturing processes used in the carpet industry. Kellie Ballew, Shaw’s director of sustainability, provided input on the most up-to-date developments in the sector.

SF Environment then surveyed major carpet manufacturers to understand more about their sustainability practices and product catalogues. It consulted with different city agencies about their carpet needs and preferences, identifying circumstances that might warrant special treatment (e.g., historic preservation). In addition, the team spoke with architects and third-party certification organisations to better understand the full range of considerations involved in flooring decisions. It also worked with manufacturers to obtain comprehensive information about the sustainability attributes of specific products.

After almost two years of work, the city’s new carpet purchasing regulation went into effect in March 2018. A partial list of its requirements: Cradle to Cradle Silver certification; 45% recycled content; and no coal fly ash, highly fluorinated chemicals, antimicrobials, or flame retardants. “As far as we know, it seems to be the strictest in the nation,” Choy said. 

Today, visitors to the website can find detailed information about specific carpet models that comply with this regulation. For Jen Jackson, this extra step of pointing users to vetted products is critical. “When you don’t have a product list, people take these criteria, they put them into their architectural documents, and then you don’t really know if they get implemented,” she said. “To ensure that the products actually meet that spec, you have to do a lot of digging.” And because this digging requires a great deal of time, resources, and subject-matter expertise, it often simply doesn’t happen.

Although San Francisco devotes more resources to procurement than many cities, it still struggles to keep its approved product lists up to date. For now, however, the team doesn’t see a viable alternative. “Really, what people want, from all my years of doing this,” Choy said, “is ‘What is the name of the product, and who do I call to buy it?’ They don’t necessarily need so much information about why and how something is good for them.”

This pressure may lessen in the coming years as recognition of the need for collectively managed green product lists grows. One initiative that’s gaining traction is mindful MATERIALS, a free, publicly accessible online tool that aggregates product sustainability information from different manufacturers. Started in 2014 as an in-house initiative of design firm HKS, it’s now an independent program run by a volunteer-based collaborative drawn from the architecture community. While led by designers, it also serves end users (e.g., municipalities) and others.

The tool is currently used in over 170 countries, and more than 60 new users sign up each week, said Rebecca Best, who leads outreach and engagement for the organisation. This rapid growth has been largely driven by the fact that mindful MATERIALS is not affiliated with particular certification bodies and doesn’t charge manufacturers to display their information, she said. It currently provides sustainability information for almost 8,000 products, a number that it aims to grow to 20,000 by the end of the year. 

“That’s what we really need as a movement, what mindful MATERIALS will be offering,” said Choy.

At the Responsible Purchasing Network, Alicia Culver also helps cities identify ways to efficiently and effectively direct their employees to sustainable products. One proven strategy, she said, is to negotiate “all-green” contracts with suppliers in order to secure deep price discounts for sustainable products and services. Another is to work with vendors to show employees only pre-approved products in online search results.

While there’s currently no way to know for certain how much cities’ shift to green procurement is impacting the broader marketplace, Shaw’s Kellie Ballew said that initiatives like these do inform manufacturers’ decisions about what to make and how to make it.

“It does provide those concrete proof points that we can take to leadership and say, ‘This is an example of what customers are asking for, and this is how we feel we should adjust product manufacturing or product content or product composition in order to change on pace with the market.’”


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