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ASU initiative helping cities to become more sustainable

ASU researchers are helping cities find ways to 'buy green.'
July 6, 2017

Researchers launch campaign to publicize best practices in 'green purchases'

Convincing consumers to change their behaviors and “buy green” one person at a time is a daunting prospect. But harnessing the huge buying power of America’s cities could be a boon to manufacturers of sustainable goods ... and friendlier to the planet.

A team of Arizona State University researchers launched a project this week aimed at making it easier for cities to “buy green” — at a time when local governments are at the forefront of committing to sustainability.

“Advancing Green Purchasing in Local Governments” is based on a survey of hundreds of government officials that led to eight real-world recommendations for city officials to buy environmentally friendly products, which can include everything from lightbulbs to carpeting. The tips will be disseminated in a marketing blast that will reach thousands of local governments nationwide.

The project is funded by the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation, a nonprofit that wanted the ASU team to go far beyond academic research, according to Nicole Darnall, one of the researchers and a professor of management and public policy in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Sustainability. She is also associate director of the Center for Organizational Research and Design at ASU, which houses the Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative team.

“Outreach is a big part of the grant because our funderVillum Kann Rasmussen was a Danish engineer who founded the VELUX window company after World War II. The ASU team also partnered with the International City/County Management Association. wants to change the way local government purchasing works,” she said. The initiative includes a website with the full report and recommendations, as well as a podcast, videos and social-media campaign to get the word out nationwide.

Nicole Darnall

Cities might have sustainability policies, but that doesn’t always translate into “green purchasing” because the buyers might not know about the policy, have enough information on the products or the authority to make a decision. That’s why one of the team’s recommendations is to empower employees and reward them for seeking out green products.

There’s definitely a need for these kind of actionable recommendations, according to Mark Hartman, the city of Phoenix’s chief sustainability officer.

“There can be a lot of missed opportunities,” he said. “Some things are as simple as the stroke of a pen, like having an Energy Star policy for buying any appliance.”

A timely project

The ASU experts had previously researched “eco-labels” and how people use information when buying things.

“Individual consumers’ daily routines are very difficult to change. And you’re changing them one person at a time, which takes time,” said Darnall, who also is a senior sustainability scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

“That brought our team to the concept of large institutional purchasing,” she said, noting that governments in the U.S. account for $1.72 trillion worth of purchases annually. That accounts for 25 to 40 percent of every tax dollar spent, according to the report.

The team sent out more than 1,800 surveys and got responses from 616 officials representing 459 cities. The results looked like this:

• 60 percent had no green purchasing policy
• 28 percent had a green purchasing policy
• 12 percent didn’t know

Of the 170 officials who said they operated under a green purchasing policy, 42 percent said they didn’t believe it was successful.

“It’s a strong statement that directors in local governments would disclose that. They were willing to talk about the shortcomings and that’s very important to our research, because our recommendations are rooted in that comparison between success and lack of success,” Darnall said.

Justin Stritch

The team sent the survey in January, months before President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. But despite the reversal at the federal level, 10 states and nearly 330 American cities, including Phoenix, have committed to the voluntary goals of the agreement — a 26 to 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2025.

“We didn’t know how timely this would be,” said Justin Stritch, one of the researchers and an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs. The other two team members are Stuart Bretschneider, Foundation Professor of organization design and public administration and director of research at the Center for Organization Research and Design, and Lily Hsueh, an assistant professor of public policy and economics in the School of Public Affairs.

“Now we have something we can bring to these municipalities at a time when they’re saying, ‘OK we’ve committed to this. Now what can we do?’ ”

Boosting the green

The city of Phoenix was an important part of the project. The ASU team met with 14 purchasing officers from different city departments, including the airport and the convention center, in a focus group. Their feedback helped the professors shape the questions they asked in the survey.

“They all do things differently, and that was important to understand. It’s easy to think local governments act monolithically or that purchasing happens one way. This isn’t the case,” Darnall said.

Although Phoenix has had a green purchasing program for several years, it was looking to revitalize it, according to Joe Giudice, the city’s environmental programs administrator. He and Marina Estrella, an environmental quality specialist for the city, worked with the ASU team.

In the focus groups, they realized that employees who buy things had the perception that “green” products would cost more.

“We wanted to make sure we could demonstrate that is not the case, and we were able to reintroduce the concept of using life-cycle analysis — when you can buy something today that costs more but lasts a lot longer,” he said.

Phoenix is now beefing up its electronic purchasing system to make it easier to buy environmentally preferable products, Giudice said. Interns from ASU’s School of Sustainability are helping with that project.

Finding what works

The team boiled the findings down to eight practices used by local governments that have successful green purchasing policies. Here’s a summary:

1. Build on complementary practices. Cities that already have sustainability policies on recycling or energy use, for example, are in a better position to have a good green purchasing policy.

2. Use information about environmentally preferred products. Darnall said that there are many types of “eco-labels” with varying levels of accuracy and reliability. The report recommends following the eco-labels preferred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.3

3. Utilize e-procurement systems that integrate environmental product information. The team said that cities should follow the EPA recommendations on which systems are best.

4. Track spending related to green purchases. Cities that track spending are more likely to elevate the importance of green purchasing and develop goals.

5. Enhance collaborative vendor relationships. With limited information on green products, vendors can be a source of knowledge. Darnall said that typically, citiesThe cities were all over 25,000 population and representative for geography and income. The team was able to double its response rate by hiring four students to call officials who received surveys but hadn’t responded. are advised to keep vendors at arm’s length to avoid the potential for corruption. “But when it comes to issues of sustainability, collaboration leads to more successful outcomes,” she said.

6. Assign responsibility to top-level management. This signals the importance of green purchasing and helps build momentum and commitment. The survey found that top-level management involvement was more important than financial resources in a successful policy.

7. Foster a culture of innovation. Green purchasing programs are more successful with empowered employees who can take managed risks and be rewarded.

8. Participate in professional networks to share best practices. Learn from those who have done it. (The report lists the International Green Purchasing Network, Responsible Purchasing Network and Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council as resources.)

Darnall said that Phoenix was the perfect example for the project.

“Although the research speaks to cities that have no sustainable purchasing policies, cities like Phoenix that are interested but have challenges are the ones that are most likely to make significant changes.”

Visit the project website here.

Top photo: The city of Phoenix, shown here from South Mountain, was an important part of ASU's Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU Cronkite professor: Mistakes don't equal fake news

Before you share a story — even this one — read it all, use your common sense.
July 6, 2017

Innovation Chief Eric Newton on the danger of fake news and the need for the public to become more news literate

“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” said the 28-year-old gunman days after he fired an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C., pizzeria because he believed the eatery was enslaving children. 

The intel he was referring to was actually a hoax caused by a fake news item, and the December 2016 incident is now known as “Pizzagate.”

That scenario is an example of what could go wrong when people are given false or misleading information. In June, several sites claimed that 87-year-old actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood died in his Brentwood, California home. Around the same time, Twitter was set ablaze when it was reported that NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs cut off his trademark braids, which he has had since 2011. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg recently vowed to aggressively deal with fake news on his platform, which has an estimated 2 billion users.

Getting taken in by fake news may sound harmless to some, but it can fuel nationwide conspiracies and promote hateful propaganda, and it has the potential to affect outcomes in key global elections.

Here’s the thing about reading a fake news item, according to Eric Newton, professor of practice at Arizona State University: Slow down and use your common sense to discern what’s fact and what’s fiction.

“Consume news from more than one source. … If a story is outrageous, amazing or unbelievable, take a minute to confirm it,” said Newton, who is also the innovation chief at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “If you can’t find a legacy news source to confirm a story, be suspicious.”

ASU News spoke to Newton about the history of fake news, its emergence in the digital age and why it’s a threat to our democracy.

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Eric Newton

Question: What is your definition of “fake news”?

Answer: Journalists worldwide depend on the Associated Press stylebook. The AP says: “the term 'fake news' may be used as shorthand for deliberate falsehoods masked as news circulating on the internet.” Note the phrase “deliberate falsehoods.” People who produce fake news know it is untrue. They are trying to create mass delusions to make money or otherwise influence our decisions. Fake news is counterfeit, a fraud, a forgery, a hoax, specious, a sham. Fake news succeeds to the extent that it deceives. It’s deplorable.

Mainstream professional journalism is not “fake news.” Even when journalists get things wrong, you shouldn’t call their mistakes “fake news.” Sloppy journalism, maybe. Professional journalists have no intent to deceive. They are trying to get it right. They correct their mistakes.

Saying mainstream media produces fake news is like saying a person who makes a mistake is the same as a zombie. Journalism is imperfect. Even good journalists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot — but most of their self-inflicted wounds are tiny. Fake news, on the other hand, is like a zombie: It wants to eat your brain. People should be able to tell the difference between a paper cut and a monster.

Q: When did fake news begin to emerge, and what has happened to it in the digital age?

A: Fake news has been around as long as news itself. Whenever a new form of media rises, the hoaxers join in. We really don’t know when the first fake news story happened. Perhaps it was around an ancient campfire, when an early Homo sapien realized he could get everyone to run and hide — and therefore have the best food to himself — by jumping up and pretending a tiger was coming.

A famous example of a daily newspaper hoax came in 1835, when the New York Sun printed a series of stories hailing the discovery of life on the moon. The Sun printed a drawing of humanoid creatures with bat-like wings. When real astronomers said it was fake, the paper congratulated itself for fooling everyone. That was a long time before journalism ethics.

Today, through the internet, search engines and social media, fake news can spread around the world in seconds. Anyone can create it. Everyone can share it. Journalists by themselves can’t stop it. In the 21st century, we need new forms of literacy — digital literacy, media literacy, news literacy and civics literacy — to fight back.

Q: What in your opinion is dangerous about fake news?

A: Democracies use common sets of facts to solve problems. Fake news puts toxic facts into our heads. When we let that happen, all sorts of things go wrong. You might drink water you shouldn’t, or not vaccinate your child when you should, or even run into a pizza parlor with a rifle to break up a child sex ring that doesn’t exist. That’s just the start.

Without facts, the worst evils become possible: wars, famines, disease, you name it. When autocrats control the media of their countries and can saturate their nations with fake news, these dictators can commit all manner of atrocities. When an entire society operates under a delusion, millions of people can die.

Q: What’s a quick and easy gauge for the public to use when deciphering what’s a legitimate news source and what’s not?

A: Consume news from more than one source. Use common sense. If a story is outrageous, amazing or unbelievable, take a minute to confirm it. If you can’t find a legacy news source to confirm a story, be suspicious. If a fact-checking organization has debunked a story, don’t share it. If the story doesn’t link to original source material, watch out.

A simple search often can expose fake news sources. But most of all, slow down. Fake news spreads fastest when people share it immediately, without reading it or without thinking.

Q: How can the public become more news literate in the future?

A: I’ve already covered why hoaxers aren’t the same as honest journalists. But I’m glad you asked about news literacy. We all can do more to spread it: educators, technologists, journalists and everyone. News literacy should be universal, part of every teacher’s classroom. Technology companies can better deal with content that is undeniably false. Journalists can be more transparent, showing their sources, and more engaged with the communities they serve. Everyone can look at their media diets and learn how to stop sharing fake news.

We hold in the palms of our hands the most powerful personal communications devices ever invented. They can unlock facts or unleash fictions. Be honest: Do you really know how to use your smartphone? The speed and power of technology has made more urgent some long-standing questions.Here’s one example: Frustrated by the partisan press, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the real extent of the state of misinformation” is understood only by people who can use “facts within their knowledge” to confront “the lies of the day.”  

News literacy is teaching everyone how to find, understand, use and even create news that helps people better run their governments and their lives. It hopes to turn everyone into people who can understand the extent of the state of misinformation. Why? Because our system is based on the idea that truth can drive out falsehood, that voters can make informed decisions.

Until we have a news-savvy nation, we’ll never be all we can be.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now