For Kevin Lyons, executive director of purchasing for all Rutgers University campuses and research professor in supply chain environmental management and archaeology, the commitment to green purchasing is both personal and professional.
His doctorate in supply change management emphasized environmentally responsible procurement, the principles of which he has been integrating into purchasing at Rutgers for more than 20 years. “The green purchasing initiative is not something we are mandated to do,” he says “It is part of what we believe is good quality procurement.”
Lyons will speak on “Greening the University: A ‘Buying for the Future’ Perspective,” on Wednesday, January 7, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The free event is part of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. For information, call 609-924-9529.
The biggest complaint that most people raise about going green is the cost, says Lyons. “People go into Whole Foods and really want to do it, but the first thing they say is ‘Look at the price; it’s kind of high.’” The basic laws of supply and demand, however, suggest an antidote to high prices. “The larger the size, the bigger the purchasing power you have, and the better the pricing thresholds you will get,” says Lyons.
Rutgers’ large size — with 51,000 students and 11,000 faculty and staff — gives it significant buying heft. “We’re basically a small city,” he explains. “When we negotiate and competitively bid contracts, our pricing threshold will already be pretty good per-item. We have taken that purchasing power and focused it on environmentally responsible goods and services or green products, to make the price lower.”
Despite his success in turning his passion into an academic endeavor at Rutgers, Lyons felt that Rutgers should be doing more for the community outside. “We’re a state university, and part of our mission is to be giving back to the citizens,” he says. So two years ago he established a green purchasing cooperative that allows other organizations to share in the university’s green purchasing power. Now standard university contracts include language requiring the businesses that provide goods and services to the university to offer them at the same prices to coop members. About 20 partners now buy against Rutgers contracts in this pilot program; they include K-to-12 schools; municipalities, such as Highland Park; Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen; and Middlesex County.
Besides helping out its cooperative partners, this program was designed as an experiment that, if successful, might be copied by other large purchasers. Lyons outlined the steps necessary to set up such a cooperative:
Make sure the lead organization has the right characteristics. In many ways a university is the perfect environment for a green purchasing coop.
Not only does Lyons have at his behest people trained to negotiate and write contracts but also academics with whom he can consult about product details. “You also have to know what it is you are buying,” he explains. “Rutgers is a research university, and I can tap into the chemistry and food science departments to ask, ‘Is this particular product green and what are the characteristics of it?’ and ‘Can the university actually approach a corporation and get it to provide us with a product that fits our requirements?’”
Lyons’ department regularly uses the university’s depth of research to make sure it is buying a certified green product. “If you are going to get recycled paper from the Rutgers coop contract, you know it is the best performance paper, because we research it heavily,” he said. Price is only the department’s second consideration.
Identify the lead administrator. Lyons, who occupies this role in the Rutgers coop, observes, “This is the part that obviously takes the most energy. This person or entity has to coordinate the needs of all the members.”
Identify the members of the coop. Rutgers, being a state university and a public agency, was not allowed to partner with private companies, but instead had to look at similar institutions for membership. Other coops could have fewer constraints.
Decide on green products to be purchased. From the universe of green products a coop has to target products and services that are meaningful to the entire group. “There are a lot of products the university purchases to survive every day,” says Lyons, “but you wouldn’t put all the products in the coop. You have to get a consensus of what is commonly going to be used that could be green.” Popular products are toilet paper, copy paper, ice melt, and biodiesel fuel.
Often outside entities will approach Rutgers to find out which products the university has deemed appropriately green, and Lyons also suggests another source, the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA offers information on environmentally preferable purchasing, including a database of environmental information for products and services at www.epa.gov/epp.
Monitor the performance of suppliers. Being green does not give suppliers any leeway when it comes to maintaining quality. “Obviously the quality of products still has to remain high,” says Lyons. “Just because they are green doesn’t mean you have to get bad quality stuff. It still has to perform the same as its non-green counterpart or it will turn people off.”
Establish procedures. In the electronic binder that the coop sends out to its members are specific instructions as well as contact information at Rutgers and for the individual suppliers. The coop members themselves contact the suppliers to make arrangements about quantity and delivery; what they do not have to do is negotiate contracts. Some other coops, adds Lyons, have members purchase through a central entity that serves almost as a clearing house.
Because Rutgers has the responsibility for the quality of products and ensuring that they perform well, members are asked not to contact suppliers individually. “If there are any problems, they are supposed to contact the administrator of the coop so that the administrator can contact the supplier and deal with the issues on behalf of the entire coop,” says Lyons. This allows him to pull in a supplier and say, “Listen, we are getting complaints about quality or performance, and this is what you’re going to do to correct it.”
Lyons grew up in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, outside of Columbus, where his father was a telecommunications engineer and his mother was in accounting. He received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Colorado State University in 1992 and then got his doctorate in supply chain management and environmental management from the University of Sunderland in England.
Lyons does not foresee the Rutgers coop growing much larger, because only he and his colleague, Magda Comeau, are staffing the venture. But he would love to see the idea spread and is now working with Middlesex County to help it mirror the Rutgers’ model. “We feel we can transfer the knowledge we have to them and serve a larger audience,” says Lyons. “We are encouraging the state, counties, and municipalities to develop the Rutgers model so everyone can take advantage of the concept we have developed.”