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The Importance of Sustainability in Higher Ed

By Bellamy Wooten

Universities are incubators for future leaders, professionals, and policymakers, making them ideal cultivators of environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

By integrating sustainability into curricula, research agendas, campus programs, and initiatives, colleges can play a huge role in developing students’ values and behaviors towards the environment and, consequently, environmental justice. This commitment can extend beyond campus. By embracing sustainability, higher education institutions prepare students to tackle pressing challenges while positioning them as leaders in transitioning to a more sustainable global community. 

Let’s discuss what’s involved in embracing sustainable procurement at our colleges and universities and what we can all gain from such practices.

Sustainable Procurement

Procurement plans often focus on investing in goods and services with a reduced environmental impact while considering the social and ethical aspects of sourcing—a key component of sustainability. As significant consumers, universities leverage sustainable procurement to promote greener economies by choosing energy-efficient, nontoxic products made from renewable resources and produced using fair labor practices.

Implementing plans of this nature involves setting clear sustainability criteria for procurement, training procurement teams on sustainability issues, and engaging with suppliers to encourage sustainable production. Additionally, sustainable procurement helps universities comply with environmental regulations and meet the expectations of students and staff who may be increasingly conscious of sustainability. 

What is Sustainable Procurement?

The term refers to acquiring goods and services in a manner that minimizes negative environmental, social, and economic impacts and maximizes the positive. 

The fundamentals include:

  1. Environmental Responsibility: Procure products and services that have minimal environmental impact throughout their lifecycle, from extraction of raw materials to disposal or recycling.
  2. Equity: Ensure fair labor practices, respect human rights, and promote diversity and inclusion in the supply chain.
  3. Economic Viability: To make economically sound procurement decisions, consider long-term costs and benefits, including total cost of ownership and life cycle assessments.
  4. Transparency and Accountability: Maintain transparency in procurement processes, disclose information about suppliers and their practices, and be accountable for sustainable procurement goals and outcomes.
  5. Innovation and Continuous Improvement: Encourage innovation in products and services that contribute to sustainability goals and continuously improve procurement practices based on performance data and feedback.
  6. Collaboration and Engagement: Collaborate with suppliers, employees, communities, and government agencies to promote sustainable procurement practices and address shared challenges.
  7. Risk Management: Identify and mitigate risks related to sustainability, such as supply chain disruptions, environmental impacts, and reputational risks.
  8. Legal Compliance: Ensure compliance with relevant laws, regulations, and standards related to sustainability, including environmental regulations, labor laws, and ethical sourcing guidelines.

What Makes an Effective Sustainable Procurement Plan?

Lifecycle Assessment and Product Evaluation Criteria

A lifecycle assessment (LCA) systematically analyzes a product or service’s environmental impacts, from raw material extraction to disposal. This assessment considers resource amounts, energy consumption, emissions, waste generation, and potential environmental hazards at each stage of the product’s life. LCAs in sustainable procurement plans are valuable because they comprehensively study a product’s environmental footprint, helping organizations make informed decisions that minimize negative impacts.

Product evaluation criteria within sustainable procurement plans are the specific standards or metrics used to assess products or services’ environmental, social, and economic aspects. These criteria guide the evaluation process and help determine whether a product aligns with sustainability goals. Standard product evaluation criteria touch on every area of sustainable procurement.

Image source: https://sievo.com/blog/sustainable-procurement-part1

Examples of University Sustainable Procurement Plans

University of Texas at Austin

When looking for exceptional examples of university-specific plans, the information provided by STARS, “a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance,” is beneficial. STARS — the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System — is run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the leader in advancing sustainability in higher education. UT Austin is rated a 3.00/3.00 by STARS for its sustainability initiatives. The university emphasizes responsible purchasing, which considers the total cost of ownership, waste minimization, and future-proofing supply chains. It employs Lifecycle Cost Analysis (LCCA) as a standard practice when evaluating energy- and water-using products and systems to ensure cost-effective, sustainable design and enhanced energy efficiency in construction.

Additionally, UT Austin has established sustainability criteria for various products and services, including chemically intensive products, consumable office products, furniture, IT equipment, food service providers, and transportation and fuels. These criteria focus on environmental performance, recycled content, energy efficiency, and alternative fuels. The university engages with suppliers and adheres to sustainability standards set by various organizations. One example is the nonprofit Green Seal, which sets standards based on a life cycle approach that considers impacts from raw materials extraction, manufacturing, use, and disposal. UT Austin sets specific goals to engage underutilized businesses in its professional services procurement, fostering diversity and inclusion. Moreover, the institution has set targets for incorporating alternative fuel vehicles in its fleet, underscoring its commitment to sustainable operations.

Texas A&M University

The rivalry between the two leading Texas public universities continues even in sustainability. Texas A&M received a 1.25/3.00 from the STARS rating of their sustainable procurement plan and other sustainability initiatives. Their “Green Purchasing Initiative” emphasizes the procurement of environmentally preferable products and services if they meet standards such as performance and cost-effectiveness. Support for this is shown at various administrative levels by encouraging departments to engage with management and adopt these practices. Procurement Services play a crucial role by emphasizing sustainability in documentation, facilitating training, and integrating sustainability language into vendor contracts.

Additionally, the university addresses specific categories with published sustainability criteria. A&M has documented and adhered to standards for chemically intensive products that minimize environmental impact and improve indoor air quality. As for furniture, the 2017 Campus Master Plan includes guidelines that align with various green building standards, although it does not mandate LEED certification. LEED is the most widely used green building rating system. Additionally, no published sustainability criteria exist for consumable office products, IT and equipment, food services, transportation, and fuels. Garments and linens are evaluated under the university’s agreement with Barnes and Noble, which adheres to the Fair Labor Association’s Code of Conduct, upholding labor rights in producing college apparel. Though this comprehensive approach demonstrates Texas A&M’s commitment to sustainability, certain areas still lack specific criteria.

Impact and Benefits of Sustainable Procurement in Universities

Sustainable procurement offers numerous benefits. Economically, it helps organizations control costs by adopting a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) approach, which considers all life-cycle costs of products or services, optimizing long-term investments. It also ensures compliance with regulations and applicable laws, which prevent costly legal issues and fines. Additionally, sustainable procurement strategies contribute to the continuity and security of supply chains, minimize business risks related to environmental factors, and create competitive advantages by differentiating products and services in the market. Furthermore, these practices are crucial in managing an organization’s reputation, often appealing to environmentally conscious investors.

Environmentally, sustainable procurement aims to reduce waste and improve efficiency, supporting the transition to a circular economy. It also significantly reduces carbon emissions and energy consumption, crucial in combating climate change. Sustainable procurement practices limit the negative impacts of buying from non-certified sources, ensuring that organizations adhere to stringent environmental guidelines and standards.

Socially, these practices demonstrate a commitment to the communities where organizations operate. This includes eliminating unethical practices such as child labor, securing fair wages, and engaging in community projects that enhance social welfare. Organizations can also foster better community relations by investing in local projects that improve quality of life, thereby building social capital. 

Developing a Sustainable Procurement Plan

Effective supplier engagement and the development of sustainable partnerships are crucial for companies, institutions, and organizations aiming to fulfill their sustainability goals. The process begins with identifying and prioritizing suppliers whose values align with those goals, encouraging active participation in decision-making to solidify plans for achieving sustainability targets. Establishing a transparent system of rewards and penalties, including financial and non-financial incentives, is essential. Simplifying compliance for suppliers by aligning expectations with those of peer organizations can drive substantial progress and foster meaningful collaboration.

The journey toward sustainable procurement involves defining core values and understanding its drivers, such as market demands, stakeholder expectations, or regulations. Determining procurement’s role within the organization and setting realistic and inspiring goals informed by industry benchmarks and standards are essential. Developing specific Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals tailored to the business model and industry, such as achieving full compliance with environmental regulations, ensuring ethical labor practices, and adhering to strict governance standards like anti-bribery laws, is also critical. This includes conducting a current state analysis to identify gaps and set a clear improvement path.

Strategies should include redesigning procurement processes to integrate ESG goals making sustainability a key criterion in purchasing decisions. Tools like the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) matrix, which defines employees’ roles and duties for each project task, milestone, and decision, can help foster an environment of clear communication and improvement. Managing supplier performance by setting clear expectations and using a responsible sourcing framework to assess and categorize suppliers based on their sustainability impact is vital. Regular monitoring through sustainability key performance indicators and audits ensures suppliers meet standards and contribute positively to sustainability objectives.

Lastly, implementing sustainability reporting through advanced data tools and analytics is essential for tracking and reporting the sustainability performance of procurement activities. Establishing robust reporting mechanisms provides accurate and actionable insights, ensuring compliance and shaping future strategies. Sharing these insights securely with stakeholders is crucial for maintaining transparency and accountability. Organizations can achieve sustainability objectives through these comprehensive steps and create a responsible supply chain.


The imperative for sustainable procurement in universities is profound, given their influential role in shaping tomorrow’s leaders, innovators, and policymakers. As substantial consumers and community figures, universities have the unique opportunity to set benchmarks for sustainability that reverberate beyond academic confines into broader societal and environmental realms. By embedding sustainability into procurement, universities uphold environmental stewardship and social responsibility and enhance their educational mandate by providing students with a practical framework for ethical decision-making and responsible citizenship.

Bellamy Wooten is a Sustainability Studies and Geography double major at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the Spring 2024 Environmental Policy and Advocacy Intern for the Texas office of Public Citizen in Austin.