ASU professor appointed to first federal sustainable purchasing committee in the US


A graphic image of a green earth with the White House and sustainable energy and buildings.

Image by Hannah Kalas

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With discretionary spending totaling $1.6 trillion last fiscal year, the federal government has a lot of purchasing power. Spending those dollars sustainably may be key to helping the U.S. achieve its climate change goals. 

Nicole Darnall, a professor of management and public policy in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures, is pointing the way as a member of the nation’s first advisory committee focused on sustainable federal spending. 

As the director and co-founder of the Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative, Darnall was primed for her new role. Six years ago, she led a pro bono project involving faculty in ASU’s School of Public Affairs, a team of graduate students and the city of Phoenix. The project’s goal was to advise the city about how to reduce its carbon footprint by making more eco-friendly purchasing decisions. Today, her influence has expanded as a member of the Biden administration’s new Acquisition Policy Federal Advisory Committee. 

Here, Darnall discusses her new role and how the federal government can achieve the most environmental bang for the taxpayer’s buck. 

Question: What is sustainable purchasing, and why is it important for the government to implement it?

Answer: Sustainable purchasing — known as SP for short — introduces environmental and social criteria into purchasing decisions. Government purchasing accounts for about 1 in every 4 dollars in the U.S. economy alone. By leveraging its enormous purchasing power, the federal government can deliver public services while providing significant sustainability benefits. SP creates incentives within the supply chain for companies to reduce their emissions and radically expand their global production of sustainable products and services. These are the reasons why the Biden administration is promoting SP in numerous executive orders, including one that requires agencies to consider a supplier’s greenhouse gas emissions when making procurement decisions and to give preference to bids from companies with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: What expertise is needed to effectively address this issue? How does your expertise fit into this picture? 

A: We need individuals who understand the existing procurement process and existing regulations and sustainability. This requires imagination and thinking creatively about where we need to go, not just where we are today. There’s a lot of inertia within government. Incentive structures need to shift, as do points of responsibility. We need individuals who understand how you create change within organizations so that we can realize the successful sustainability outcomes we're looking for.

I have been studying organizations’ decisions to be sustainable for more than 20 years at ASU and elsewhere. Most of my research examines organization change from a sustainability point of view.

A headshot of

Nicole Darnall

Q: You’re a co-founder and director of ASU’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative. Tell me about that. 

A: SPRI is an international initiative involving scholars, students, and government and community leaders. SPRI’s goals are to produce actionable knowledge about SP, apply rigorous assessment tools to determine the ways in which organizations can advance SP more successfully and partner with organizations seeking to advance SP.

Other SPRI leaders are Justin Stritch, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, and Shirley-Ann Behravesh, assistant professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management. We coordinate teams of 19 international University Research Fellows (in Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Republic of Korea and the U.S.). Fellows have contributed data on 4,500 local governments’ SP activities to a shared database. 

Our practitioner partnerships, public reports, academic publications, webinars/presentations, blogs and social media outreach assist practitioners in developing successful SP programs. SPRI has partnered with ASU’s University Sustainability Practices and Staff Council on sustainability to assess the barriers to and facilitators of SP at ASU. We have also collaborated with the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Glendale to help them embed sustainability in their procurement decisions. Beyond Arizona, SPRI faculty have partnered with the states of Utah and New Mexico to provide advice on how to implement SP. 

Q: Who are the other members of the advisory committee, and what is their mission?

A: The 28 inaugural members were selected from more than 100 nominated experts in sustainable purchasing nationwide. They are a balanced mix of representatives from federal agencies, state and local governments, industry (including small business), associations and academia. We report directly to the General Services Administration to ensure that climate and sustainability considerations are at the forefront of federal acquisitions.

The committee is organized into three subcommittees. One will focus on the workforce: training, recruitment and retention needs — all related to pivoting the federal workforce in a way to successfully address sustainability goals. The second will focus on new policies and regulations that are needed to serve as a foundation for the shift across federal government purchasing. The third will focus on industry and industry partnerships, innovations needed to advance sustainability within the federal government’s purchasing process. 

Q: What does success look like for this committee? 

A: Success would mean helping the federal government meet its climate change goals. It's also about demonstrating leadership within the procurement space. We will be especially focused on quick wins. As someone who studies organizational change, I believe that's really smart because quick wins help fuel momentum. They help individuals who are a bit skeptical realize that sustainability change is possible. The committee has a real opportunity to develop a framework that other governments could follow if we land this right.

Q: Why is government involvement essential? 

A: Voluntary efforts only go so far because they're voluntary. For every volunteer organization, there will be dozens and dozens of other organizations that don't volunteer. Our climate goals are ambitious, and they're needed. Volunteerism is not sufficient.

Q: Why is it important for an ASU representative to serve on this committee?

A: Across the U.S. we see individual researchers who are studying aspects of this work. But the collective knowledge that we are advancing at ASU is unique. ASU’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative is collaborating with a suite of scholars within the School of Public Affairs, Thunderbird School of Global Management, W. P. Carey School of BusinessSchool for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Sustainability. We’ve been thinking through the purchasing issue from many different directions to advance cutting-edge research. I am very eager to bring forward our lessons learned to help inform the work of the committee.

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