Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Greening the Campus from a Procurement Perspective

Introduction by Kirkpatrick Sale

I would venture to say that almost every one of you here has spent some time in college, and most of you, like perpetual undergraduates, are working in colleges and universities even still. All in the cause, of course, of what is called education, appropriately defined by John Maynard Keynes as “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent,” as true now, I am sure—or perhaps truer—as when he said it fifty years ago. At least that’s the kind of education that our institutions have largely been designed for and competently carry out.

But that design, as we increasingly realize and as David Orr pointed out this morning, is flawed. Flawed in many ways, from the kinds of students to the things being taught, from the places and methods of teaching to the purposes of learning these things, from the kinds of research being carried out to the kinds of graduates being turned out.

Fritz Schumacher thought a good deal about education and its purposes. In Small Is Beautiful he speaks of education as “the greatest resource”—meaning not that it is, but it could be. And it is not education so that we know how to do things, such as pursue a career: “the task of education,” he wrote, “would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives . . . . At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.”

And, he went on, “the essence of education” is not only the transmission of values but a way of making them “become our own, a part, so to say, of our mental makeup. This means that they are more than mere formulae or dogmatic assertions: that we think and feel with them, that they are the very instruments through which we look at, interpret, and experience the world.”

Now that, I suggest, is the essence of what we are talking about today, values that we take into our system and through which we see the world. What greening the campus is all about is acquiring the right values, making them a part of our worldview, trying to see that those values are enacted in every aspect of our life—including, as most universities forget, in the daily processes of running a large institution—and having universities not only teach but act in ways that reflect the right values of an ecological culture.

The man I am about to introduce to you has worked at that exact task for most of his adult career. He knows well the sort of values a modern university ought to have, and even more, at least in his specialties, he knows how it ought to carry them out. As director of procurement at Rutgers—that is, I should tell you, not procurement for its football team, which god knows could use some help—he has since 1988 worked on numerous projects and proposals that have transformed the way the university does its daily business, from lighting and energy management to waste recycling and contract packaging return.

You can read the basics of his biography in the lecture handout, but I should add to it that he has recently completed his doctorate in environmental management and operations at the University of Sunderland, and we are the first audience to hear Dr. Lyons. If you really want to know who he is and what he has done, I suggest you look at his recent book, Buying for the Future: Contract Management and the Environmental Challenge, which might have had the subtitle, à la Schumacher, “Purchasing as if People Mattered.” It is an excellent telling of the Rutgers story, but it is more: it is a guide for any institution or business that wants to take seriously the idea of living appropriately on an imperiled earth—and of educating its members in the values inherent therein.

Please welcome Kevin Lyons.

I’m happy to be here today, surrounded by a number of good friends. Some of you I’ve seen at other conferences around the country. I’m glad that there is a strong New Jersey presence, including students from Lawrenceville Prep, who are here in force, and Drs. David and Joan Ehrenfeld from Rutgers University.

Today I would like to talk mainly about the good things that have been accomplished at Rutgers in the areas of green contracting and social responsibility. An important part of the story, however, is the bad things, such as strong resistance on the part of the administration and contractors. I’ll include that as well.

I have been involved in green contracting for the past fourteen years; in the beginning I seemed always to be speaking to the same crowd, people who had already taken action or wanted to. But five or six years ago I started speaking to business leaders and policymakers, who really need to hear this story and to take action. These are the people we must concentrate on, but they tend to be set in their ways and to resist change. They know what works for them, and to make a drastic change in policy and procedures seems to them like too much work. This presents a challenge for us who are working to bring about change.

I’m going to present practical steps that you can carry out and practice every day. It’s not just about green purchasing and improving contracts. Yes, you need to understand economics—supply and demand, how business works—but you also have to consider the ethical implications: where do the products come from? What impact are they having on the university? Are we buying local? Are we engaging the local community in our struggle to bring change?

You also need an understanding of science and technology to keep up with the ever-changing products being brought into the institution and to predict whether or not those particular products are going to satisfy the existing needs of the institution on a daily basis. It sets you back a couple of paces in achieving your goals if you purchase an environmentally preferable product, only to learn that it doesn’t work.

You need to understand policy and how the institution runs, who makes the decisions and who actually carries those decisions out. Risk assessment also comes into play, and some of the biggest changes I have made together with my procurement team have dealt with the health of our faculty, staff, and students, particularly those of our staff who perform the operational cleaning and maintenance of our facilities. We have made substantial changes that have affected them in a positive way.

We must take all these factors into account when we consider environmentally preferable products instead of the normal everyday purchases based on the attitude of “We bought it last year, let’s buy it again this year because it’s the easiest thing to do.” The people you’re going to try to convince will be struggling with decision-making every day; it’s up to us to help them understand what’s involved and, once we’ve succeeded, to help them through the transition of buying alternative products instead of virgin material.

It is very important in the “trying to convince” stage to be familiar with the past practices that have made the institution what it is and also to know the audience you’re dealing with, which includes not only faculty, staff, and students but the local community, which must be brought into the fold as well.

I think the biggest obstacle to bringing about change is the administration, which for the most part will try to wait it out until the spring semester ends in the hope that by the time you return in the fall you will have forgotten what you were talking about in the spring. That’s the kind of mentality we’ve been dealing with for many years. It’s a challenge to persevere from one academic year to the next with the same message and drive it home until it is accepted. Then of course, if we’re going to be agitating and talking about the need for change, we ourselves must set an example by practicing what we preach. So there’s a lot for you to think about.

I’m going to tell you a story that illustrates the kind of reward that can result from your efforts. About a year and a half ago Governor Pataki signed an executive order to green all of procurement for the New York City Transit Authority. I worked with the Authority on how to implement its green policy. Initially the purchasing agents said they didn’t want to do it. Too much work. I was finally able to convince the facilities-maintenance folks to maintain their elevators with a vegetable-based oil instead of the virgin oil they had been using. Six months ago one of the seals in an elevator shaft cracked, which actually happens quite often, and all the oil from that shaft leaked to the bottom of the pit. There was approximately a foot-and-a-half of it. Now, if that had happened before the change was made, the spill would have caused a major hazard requiring a massive clean-up. But with bio-based vegetable oil all that was required was a minor cleanup, with no worry whatsoever for the Transit Authority. So now the people there are converts. For the past year we have been working with them item by item, looking at their purchases. We’re checking into alternatively fueled buses for the entire fleet. If all goes well, this will happen within the next few years.

A sidelight of this story is that the students I worked with on this project were the same students I enlisted from a housing complex at Rutgers. Students have unusual ways of entertaining themselves in down time. These particular students chose a dangerous sport called elevator racing. Students in the housing complex actually open up the trap doors of elevators, climb up onto the top when there are two elevators side by side and race up and down the elevator shaft. I was able to convince these students to put their energy into positive action and help us investigate a soy-based oil initiative for the Transit Authority. So this group of students has been converted to the side of the environment, and now they’re working on several of our projects for us.

Before I tell you how change was brought about at Rutgers, I want to give you a little background about myself. I’ve been involved in environmental action since I was in elementary school, back when pollution and litter were the concerns of the day. I would go home and harass my parents to change their ways. Taking my environmental concern along with me, I went on to harass the military, which is not a good idea in your first year of military service. I was in procurement, and my job was to purchase commodities and vehicles and the like. My very first assignment was to eliminate the gophers on the polo field because the officers were concerned that the gopher holes would trip their horses. The order came down to buy chemicals and “Wipe ‘em out. Just get them out of there.” I objected and said we were not going to buy chemicals to wipe out anything. Here I was, a lowly soldier opposing the base commander; it was a duel to remember. For two weeks the orders kept coming, and I kept saying, “I’m not going to do it.” Reprimands were now being issued against me.

My solution was to come up with an alternative. The entomology department, which was responsible for pest management on the base, was idle at that time. It was 1980, and there were no wars going on. My plan of action was to purchase straws, which were used to blow darts to anaesthetize the gophers after we smoked them out. We moved them to another area of the base and then repaired the polo field. I was able to convince the base commander that the gophers would never come back and the officers could safely play polo. We would not have to eliminate an entire species of gophers, and everybody would be happy. Now, if that hadn’t worked, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today talking to you. I was only one step away from being thrown out of the military, but I lasted for six years, making other significant changes in the way purchases were made in the military, and I actually won several commendation medals for environmental preservation.

From the military I went to New Jersey, where I worked for two years at St. Peter’s, a Catholic hospital. I thought my troubles in the military were bad until I encountered Sister Marie, the president of the hospital, who didn’t understand the environmental movement in the slightest. She didn’t want anything to do with it. Her words to me were, “Leave it alone! Just leave it alone! We don’t need to worry about autoclaving processes and incinerating our waste and things of that nature. Just go back to your office.” The turning point finally came when I gave a lecture to Sister Marie and the other nuns in the administration. On that occasion I was able to convince them to change some of the products they were purchasing, at least to give it a try. Sister Marie kept an eye on me for the next two years, but I think we gradually developed a pretty good relationship.

For most of my fourteen years at Rutgers I have been making changes that I’ll tell you about today. I know purchasing very well, and I’ve gotten accolades for the way I execute it, but after seven years of struggling to convince the administration to incorporate environmental sustainability into its purchasing policy, I was transferred to the Rutgers Camden campus because “there are bigger and better things down there for you to do, and our staff meetings are getting a little too volatile.” In other words, I was being exiled!

I spent five years on the Camden campus. The city of Camden has a lot of difficult social and community issues to deal with on a daily basis. The state of New Jersey at that time was taking over the city financially, and luckily for me one of my first assignments was to rewrite the purchasing regulations of this depressed city to bring them into accordance with the law. When an environmentalist is given that assignment, it’s only natural that the result will be a little bit more than was asked for. The purchasing regulations I wrote contained much more—in the way of sustainability issues and community-development issues as well as the requirement to buy locally whenever possible.

When the members of the City Council looked at the regulations I handed them, their vehement response was, “That’s not what we asked you to do!” So I picked up my regulations and started to walk out of the room, saying, “Well, that’s it. I’m not being paid for this; I’ve been working pro bono for the past year. So I’ll take my regulations and go back to my campus. Someone said, “Can’t you give us a stripped-down version? Take out all the…” “No,” I interrupted, “you either get the whole package, or you get nothing at all.” They were obviously in dire straits because I had purposely delayed delivering my report till three days prior to when the Council had to announce that the new regulations were in place. It was me against the city of Trenton, which is the capital of New Jersey, and the city of Camden. Two days passed. The deadline for the governor and city officials to present the government regulations had arrived. To make a long story short, the policies I wrote were adopted and fully enforced, with the sustainability issues intact. I think the city is the better for it. The new guidelines will help to make Camden the great city it once was.

To bring about environmental change there has to be a mixture of professionalism and activism. You have to know the business side of your organization, and you also have to agitate. The action part is what really changes minds and moves people to do some of the things I’ll be telling you about. In addition, a sense of social responsibility needs to be incorporated into the mix. Then your co-workers will believe that you not only work eighty hours a week and are on top of your assignments but you also know how to make your institution or organization run smoothly.

Green purchasing is more than just buying recycled-content paper. It also means looking at long-range planning in terms of which products and services you’ll be bringing into the institution. It has to do with life-cycle approaches. How are products made? Where do they come from? What resources do they use? How does the extraction of those resources affect the community in which they are located? How is the product packaged? How is it shipped? How is it used at the institution? How is the product ultimately disposed of? Are the resources re-introduced into the manufacturing process?

This larger picture is often difficult for the average purchasing or business professionals to grasp. What I’ve been able to do is show them that it is something they are already doing on a daily basis. Even without thinking in terms of the environmentally preferable product, they have to consider the same questions. They ask how long a product is going to last, how much money it is going to cost, and ultimately what to do when a particular product fails. So the idea is simply to transfer the same questions that they are dealing with anyway to the environmentally preferable alternative.

Part of my work involves traveling, not only throughout the United States but also to South America and the Far East, to see where products we purchase come from and—if I find unacceptable working conditions in sweatshops or in coffee production, for example—to look for alternatives. I bring this information back to the administration as well as to students and faculty so that they understand how great an impact what we do here has on communities outside of the university. You need to incorporate this kind of investigation into your work. Now, I don’t expect every purchasing agent to travel the globe to investigate the source of products. Fortunately, a lot of information has been published in this area for purchasing professionals to draw on. It tells about the life cycle of products, where they come from, the impact they have on the institution—not only financially but environmentally—and the resources used to get specific products to the institution. If you’re interested, I can refer you to that information later.

You will need to consider policy design, interpret that policy, and then implement it. The important thing is to translate it into action. All of our institutions should have on the books environmental policies with teeth. Many schools do now have such policies that are heading them in the right direction. But how do you sustain the actions that you’re implementing at the university? You’re going to be a student there for only four years, and then you’ll move on; so when I work with student interns, I impress on them that whatever actions are taken have to last beyond their tenure as students. It’s important to implement good ideas, but you also have to improve upon them with ongoing innovation and research, upgrading them periodically.

Remember that it’s important to involve your community. Local people can have a lot to contribute, and they have a lot of energy. In most cases the local community will go along with what you are doing.
Rutgers University spends about $350 million a year on goods and services; collectively the higher-education institutions in the United States spend about $200 billion, which is close to what the federal government spends on goods and services every year. The University has 48,000 students, more than 9,000 faculty and staff, and it occupies over 850 buildings. There’s an energy bill every year of about $25 million, and we spend approximately $3.3 million a year on waste management—with 6200 tons of waste that go to landfill and 5700 tons of waste that are recycled. The state of New Jersey requires that 65% of waste be recycled. The University has been hovering at 50-55%, but apparently that’s good enough for the state to leave us alone. Earlier, several fines were levied against Rutgers for not meeting the recycling standards. Rather than deal with the problem, the facilities-maintenance division set up a budget just to pay the fines— an interesting way out of finding a solution. But eventually we made progress in reducing energy output, waste, and procurement costs—culminating in savings, by design alone, of 3.2% annually. With a $350 million budget, that comes to a hefty $11,200,000.

Rutgers is a state institution, which means that public laws apply to us. Those of you from New Jersey should be familiar with Executive Order 34, which deals with the recycling action plan; Executive Order 91, which deals with environmentally preferable purchases and the guidelines that need to be followed; and the 1987 Resource and Recovery Act, which initiated mandatory recycling in New Jersey. This Act was passed six weeks before school started. How could we possibly set up a full-fledged recycling program for a university the size of Rutgers in six weeks? That’s when I began looking at what actually was coming in to the institution and enlisting students to help me investigate the trash itself by doing weekly waste audits, looking at the types of things that the University was buying and tracing them back to the contracts that brought waste to the university in the first place.

I think the fact that I was spending most of the day poking through dumpsters instead of sitting at my desk writing contracts is what gave me the reputation of being a bit strange. In any case, employees in housing and facilities maintenance as well as everyone in operations worked together and actually managed to get the program going in time. Some of the same people who started up that program fourteen years ago are now working on the next stage of how to deal with waste at the University.

That was when I began rewriting or negotiating contracts to make them environmentally sound. They now provide for getting waste back to the manufacturers, to the place where the product actually originated. If you look at a Rutgers University contract, you will see that it includes an environmentally preferable alternative, requires social responsibility on the part of the contracting company, and in most cases stipulates that waste be returned to the place where we bought it or to a third party involved in collecting the waste resulting from that purchase. It also deals with health concerns of our workers who come in direct contact with the products themselves. As a result, our janitorial staff uses only bio-based cleaning materials. Before this change was put into place, we asked the janitors for their input on the health risks they had been concerned about. We sent them information and explained why we were making the change. Once they understood that we were doing this not only for improving institutional operations but to protect their health and improve their job performance, I think it made for a better work force.

At that early stage we empowered the janitorial staff to monitor who was recycling and who was not in the various offices and laboratories. The Whoops! program was initiated, which almost led to my being whoopsed out of the University. We gave the janitors bright orange fluorescent stickers, and when they collected the day’s trash, if they found recyclable material that hadn’t been put in the recycling bin or nonrecyclable material that had, they were to put Whoops! stickers on the container and not empty it. The idea was to encourage the janitorial staff to become more involved in recycling, but what happened was that they issued the stickers to faculty they didn’t like. After two weeks of trash and recycling not being picked up, we were able to convince them to limit stickers to those who were not recycling. That program lasted for three or four months until people started to understand that we were indeed serious about the categories of waste exiting the institution.

Now our environmentally preferable purchasing is incorporated into the standards and specifications. There’s a good deal of life-cycle assessment involved in the specifications we write. The companies we negotiate contracts with have to provide us with life-cycle cost analysis of the products we want to purchase. Initially they were reluctant to provide the kind of information we were asking for: how long a particular product would last, how much it would cost to replace, what its composition is, what impact it will have—but we prevailed. You’ll see this kind of language in all the contracts we issue, so in a sense what I’m doing is getting our contractors more involved in the purchasing process. They are also required to provide us with detailed and up-to-the-minute reports on the changing market; and if there are any other alternative products out there in the field, they need to tell us before we tell them. We have had success with most of the contractors we deal with. They want to do business with the University, so they adjust to our insistence on environmentally preferable alternatives. I can tell you this: because of the amount of money involved, the type of contract we write has not been a problem. Our contractors have been forthcoming and have given us the information we require, with the result that significant changes have been brought about at the University.

The construction of new buildings is a part of our program as well. When buildings are being designed, environmentally preferable alternatives are incorporated into the contract specifications, even at the capital construction level. Rutgers has always had its own staff of engineers and architects; the newly hired head architect contacted me and asked if I would be interested in rewriting the standards and specifications of the University to make them more sustainable. At first I thought it was a crank call! She is spearheading the capital planning and master plan of the University, and the specifications and standards are actually taking shape to be more green.
Now I’d like to mention some ways for you to try to deal with these issues:

Necessity testing. Which products are really needed and in what quantity? Look at what a university or college or school system buys. Is it actually used? We say we need it, and we buy it in large quantities, but often at the end of the school year, it’s still sitting around. If you buy 55 gallons of acetate to conduct an experiment that’s going to take a couple of days, what are you going to do with the remaining 45 gallons? There needs to be a central source of information so that you can find out, before you buy a product, if it is available elsewhere on campus.

Substitution testing. Can undesirable products or specific ingredients in products be reduced or substituted? I’ll give as an example a waste-disposal product we had been using. We substituted trash bags with recycled content that used little or no petroleum. The tear strength of the bags was exactly the same as with virgin material. We made this substitution eight years ago when the price of oil was going up and with it the price of trash bags, but once we started using the new product, our bag prices stabilized.

In substituting one product for another we neglected to inform the janitorial staff. Prior to the change, different colors had represented bags of different sizes. The staff was used to green bags for a 55-gallon capacity, blue bags and red bags for other capacities. But the new bags were all clear plastic, regardless of size. This threw our non-English-speaking staff off balance. Nothing was getting done for a couple of days until we realized that we had made a drastic change without communicating it to those affected. We hastened to hold educational meetings and helped the staff to understand the change. We were even able to persuade the supplier to put green, blue, and red labels on the boxes to indicate the size of the bags. There was no problem after that. So you have to be careful not to let a good solution backfire on you.

Stopping procurement of dangerous or problematic products. It baffled me that the University consistently purchased products that were a health risk to the people who used them. Changing all of our cleaning products to reduce that risk brought an additional benefit as well. I was able to negotiate with our risk-management department a significant reduction in the cost of the University’s insurance policy. Obviously, lowering the risk to health for the employees who have direct contact with toxic products is welcomed by insurance companies. We were able to convey the message that there is a connection between sustainability and insurance rates.

Buying regionally. Why aren’t we buying products and services from the local economy? In most cases, we’re told that they are not available in the size or quantity we need. Within the past three years the University has begun to take a strong stance in this area. An institution like Rutgers that participates in large-scale research projects can pass technology on to local businesses so that they can prepare themselves to provide the types of products and services the institution needs. That is a major step.

Rutgers approached a firm in Edison, New Jersey, that was making widgets and gave it the technology to produce plastic with recycled content. Now that firm is exclusively making containers that the University uses on a regular basis, and it has become a successful business. This is the kind of model we need to promote. There are local businesses right within reach of your organization that are eager to do something similar.

We are now negotiating with several local farmers to deliver produce to the University—specifically organic produce, which the students have been demanding for a long time. There is no reason why local farmers should not be supplying us with the majority of the produce we eat. On one of our campuses there is a small experimental program appropriately called New Jersey Fresh, and the students are responding positively. Major changes can also be made in the dining facilities. You should reach out to the dining staff for their input. They are concerned about what the students eat. And the students themselves have power in this area. I don’t think they exercise their power enough.
When you start talking about these issues, the administration of your school is going to voice concern about fiscal responsibility. So it will be up to you to demonstrate that going green is fiscally responsible. Most institutions have a one-year budget on a fiscal or calendar basis. You are given your allotment for one year, and that’s it. Take the simple example of energy-efficient light bulbs: the initial cost is more than for regular bulbs, but they not only burn more efficiently, they also last longer. We did get the energy output we were looking for, but unfortunately the cost reduction wasn’t realized within the one-year budget cycle. We were able to convince the institution that the facilities-maintenance budget needed to be extended to a-year-and-a-half on a trial basis in order for me to prove that the change was cost effective, that environmental benefit can be a money-saver. Our costs in the area of energy output were indeed significantly reduced, and as a result the utilities department is now in the forefront of looking for more sustainable measures.

An important aspect of what I’m doing is to link the use of green products to computer technology. We’re starting to retrofit one of our computer labs with fuel cells and solar cells. Several computer terminals will be placed strategically to make them more conspicuous so that when people go into the lab, they’ll gravitate to those that are powered by solar or fuel cells. We hope to be able to expand this project.

Two-and-a-half years ago I was called up from the depths of Rutgers Camden to work on a special project. Rutgers had been given funding to upgrade its financial systems to make them web based. The University purchased Oracle software for this project, and the consultants hired to help implement it said there needed to be people working on the project who were a little bit wacky and didn’t follow the University doctrine, who could think out of the box—to use that overused phrase. At first no one in the administration could think of such a person. Then someone remembered “that nut we sent down to Camden five years ago. He might be interested.” So I was assigned to represent the financial interests of the University on the project. Now, I have to confess that I don’t like computers, but I said to myself, “If I’m going to be on this project, I want to accomplish something worthwhile, not just connect the University to the worldwide web.” The advent of e-commerce was contributing to the lack of concern about where things come from and how they are packaged. I wanted to do something to counter that, which is why I was willing to devote myself to this particular project.

What I did was write computer code that connects all University purchasing to the internet—which means connecting it to the world. We now have a system in place that at the click of a computer key actually tracks all the resources and waste coming into the institution. It tracks the package that a given product comes in and the resources it took to assemble that product and provides information about tonnage. We have a prototype that I think and hope is going to be the standard for all web-based e-commerce systems. You can easily and quickly prepare a report that shows the exact amount of waste included in a manufacturer’s shipment to you, and you can use that report to show where you expect reductions to be made.

We recently had our very first meeting with one of our manufacturers since the new tracking system went into effect in July. We’re renegotiating the contract based on the fact that we can now point out specific categories of waste being generated by a company and attach a dollar sign to it. This is possible because I was able to work in a code that gives the current market price of a particular waste, so I can say to a supplier: “We’ve gotten x number of products from you valued at this amount and y amount of waste valued at this amount. Let’s sit down and talk about how we’re either going to pass the cost of the waste on to you or you’re going to come up with alternatives in the way you deliver products and services to this institution.” So we finally have the tools to talk much more intelligently about the impact that products and services have on institutions. I think that in the next decade or so Oracle and the other financial companies that want to sell this type of technology are going to be knocking on your door, if they are not already, and now you’ll be able to use this computer code to demand improvements from your suppliers. (By the way, Oracle has given me absolutely no money for this system, yet I’m sure the company is marketing it and making a lot of money with it.)

Here are seven practical steps to guide you so that you can achieve better environmental procurement and better environmental contracting. If you would like to receive information that fleshes out these headings, contact me at

  1. Define and adopt political goals.
  2. Evaluate the status quo.
  3. Collect and disseminate information.
  4. Set a new course for the administration.
  5. Make the connection between what the students demand and how the institution should be run.
  6. Procure and select with environmental goals in mind.
  7. Take political action: co-operate, network, and be involved at regional, national, and European Union/global levels.

In conclusion, I can say that we have been able to bring many changes to the University. We now recycle twenty-four different commodities in addition to the traditional bottles, cans, and paper. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I suspect that if things are easy to do, they are not worth doing. So be prepared to roll up your sleeves. I hope the students from Lawrenceville Prep will make the trip to Rutgers and find out about the projects we’ll be working on in the near future. Other students in the audience, I urge you to connect with your campus staff. It’s helpful to have a faculty adviser, and there are many examples of faculty and staff working with students to make significant changes at the institution. But mentors who are actually in the field doing the work on a daily basis are the people who will give you the most enlightenment. Often they don’t quite understand what it is that you want from them, but they can use the assistance and insight and energy that you provide. So go forth. I’m available; call me any time. I’ll be more than happy to come and visit your institution and talk green.

Question & Answer Period

Q: University of Massachusetts students are very interested in persuading the dining service to do local purchasing of the food they eat. How workable do you think that is, given the large scale: we have 24,000 students, 5,000 faculty and staff. I also want to ask about the Oracle system you have developed. Is it accessible from the Internet? We would like to take a peek to see how you do the specifications and whether we can steal something and use it for our purposes.

A: Your second question is easier to answer: yes, that’s something I can make available to you.

As for making locally grown food available, that has to be phased in gradually. You need to focus on a small section of the dining facilities first. Avoid taking on a bigger chunk than you can handle. There’s no way that a few local farmers are going to be able to support an institution of that size. At Rutgers we have six dining facilities and several little eateries, and getting produce in that quantity from small local farmers is just not feasible. Target just one dining hall to start with. The best approach is to make a prototype, make it visible, and really promote it. At the same time, be sure to keep looking for more farmers in the region so that you can gradually expand the program.

Another thing to do is to approach your dining facilities buyer. There’s usually a food buyer on staff who specializes in negotiating contracts for food and who probably knows a lot more than we give credit for. When we made the switch in a very small targeted model at Rutgers, the food buyer who was involved actually knew about the local organic farms and co-ops in the region. We were able to negotiate with him to start on a small scale, and then it was a matter of going to the various farms in New Jersey, explaining what we were looking for, and seeing what the possibilities were. The hardest part is to actually locate organic farmers and make sure they meet the new federal standards for organically grown produce. I’m not sure how many organic growers are in your area, but I would target one and start from there.

Q: At Rensselaer we’ve been trying for years to provide local foods. I don’t know how it is at the University of Massachusetts, but we found that one of the major obstacles was that our dining services are handled by one or another multinational corporation, such as Sodexho Marriott, the French giant, or Aramark. That makes it exceedingly difficult to bring about a change because they have their own contractors. If you go to your university administration and say, “We’d like to do this,” the answer is “No, it’s Sodexho Marriott’s business.” If you go to Sodexho Marriott and say, “We’d like to do this,” the answer is “No, it’s contracted; we don’t have any autonomy at this university. Big Mother corporation tells us where to buy.” Even if you then get down to the local produce suppliers and try to make sure they are buying from local or regional organic farmers, it’s very difficult to track what actually makes it into your dining halls. My advice would be to get the big corporations off your campus as soon as possible and go back to doing it the way you used to.
We used to handle our own dining services at Rensselaer. The staff were university employees. For some reason—it happened before my time, so I don’t know why—it was seen as easier to have a giant corporation come in and provide the service. I’d be interested in actually comparing the cost. My guess is it was probably cheaper when we did it ourselves than it is to have Sodexho Marriott do it. Am I right that at Rutgers you do it yourselves?

A: Yes, we do. I should have mentioned that you need to know whether your dining facility is run by your own staff or by a private firm. If it’s the latter, when you request local produce, you’re told, “But that wasn’t written into the contract; if you want to make a change, you’ll have to renegotiate the contract,” and then of course the cost will go up.

By the way, the real reason behind that change to private companies was basically to deflate the unions on campus, which were making too much noise, and replace them with non-union shops. In addition, it’s a convenience for the administration to sign one contract and not have to worry about food services.

Q: At Clarkson University Aramark underbid other companies to provide food services, and that’s what the University went with. There were many complaints about the quality of the food. What I did was to move off campus and withdraw from the meal plan.

A: That’s an important point. I think students have more power than they give themselves credit for. Can you imagine everybody saying, “We never had a role in choosing who would run food services, and we’re not going to eat this food; we’re going to eat off campus where we can get the kind of food we want.” I’m not sure what would happen, because the University still has to pay for the contract. I don’t know what kind of renegotiations would occur at that point, but I can tell you that the university is not going to stay with a massive contract like that and pay on it every month if nobody’s using the facility. If students get together for the sake of a cause, they can bring about change. Of course, the problem is that it’s difficult to get the critical mass to go along with a revolt like that. Students say they don’t have time, they’re just too busy, but I think it’s also the reflection of a pervasive tendency in our society to just adapt to the way things are and say we have no choice.

Q: We were trailblazers at Rensselaer when it came to green purchasing. We had a full-time student on a grant who devoted his time to it. We unfortunately did not make the sort of progress we hoped to. We have a decentralized system as opposed to what I think is a centralized system at Rutgers, so it’s even harder when you’ve got 85 different academic and administrative units with significant purchasing autonomy. And it’s gotten worse because many people like me are walking around with individual purchasing cards in our pockets: I’ve got my own little VISA card with a certain limit, and I can go out and buy what I need to do my job. It’s getting harder and harder to go green with that kind of purchasing, so I hope you have some advice for us about that.

A: I think this is a case of an administration that has put its own financial needs first. They’ve taken advantage of the fact that people want to get things done in a hurry, so those credit cards are issued, and the institution’s problem goes away. We don’t have procurement cards at Rutgers, but it’s not because of the sustainability issue; it’s more because the administration doesn’t trust the faculty and staff with procurement cards, for fear there might be fraud!

Decentralization in this area does present a problem. The advent of the Internet makes it even more difficult because now you can pay for things with your procurement card on-line, which takes business away from the local people. All I can suggest is to promote more vigorously the businesses surrounding the institution that offer some of the goods and services the university buys and hope that they will offer discounts for their products. Faculty and staff also need to be encouraged to utilize those local businesses.

The policies of the university need to be re-addressed, and social consciousness needs to be raised. The purchasing department on a campus that has decentralized purchasing has a responsibility to take the lead; it needs to be much more pro-active in going out into the field and negotiating big contracts. The decentralized method works really well at the University of Pennsylvania, where there is a powerful purchasing office that negotiates contracts on behalf of the entire institution. It makes contractors available via the Internet, where you can shop on-line, and when you go to these particular companies, you find Penn’s specific pricing. There are 126 of these Internet-based companies. The purchasing office did a lot of research to find out who was buying what on campus, going out aggressively and negotiating with the companies, with the result that they are now web enabled and web based. Twenty-six of them are actually handling 51% of the institution’s business.

Q: I know you’re with a state-owned school. I work in an independent school, and it seems to me that the basis of much of the change we’re trying to bring about has to come from giving students an incentive to actually participate in making it happen. Do you know of any schools that have worked out a way of using federal grants for hiring students to participate in the kind of work you’re doing, and can you shed any light on that process?

A: Yes. We’ve gotten a lot of our funding to work with students from the Environmental Protection Agency. The most recent grant I was able to get was from the EPA and the Department of Energy for a project being partnered by Rutgers Camden campus and the Camden Science and Technology High School right off campus. It has to do with buying green chemicals, converting the science labs and such to buying green instead of the traditional chemicals. This project has been underway for about a year now.

The Department of Agriculture has also provided us with significant funding for student internships. We made a seven-minute, consciousness-raising video on waste management. If any of you would like a copy of it, let me know. It was distributed to the faculty, staff, and students on the Camden campus. In addition to federal funding, Waste Management also contributed $5000 for the video.

Some of the contracts I’ve written require the contracting company to pay for internships or contribute to a project. In fact, most of the money for internships has come from the companies that do business with the university. And the savings we’ve been able to make as a result of our projects have gone back into the internships. This makes some projects and initiatives self-funding. We had been spending $4 million a year on waste management, and we were able to reduce that by $1 million. Of course, a lot of those savings went back to facilities, but we were able to negotiate some of it for funding several students to work on more projects.

Q: At what point in the transition to providing locally grown food did the students become involved in what you were doing? Did they at any point generate the critical momentum necessary to make the transition, or was it for the most part a decision that they were receptive to?

A: It was a combination of both. The University implemented its environmental policy in 1992. Part of that implementation process was a committee I chaired that consisted of faculty, staff, and students. Students at that time wanted to see a dramatic change in the way the dining services operated. One of the line items in the policy dealt with food. We all took a particular policy to work on, with the goal that it be implemented by the University. The students gravitated toward the food issue, and they were indeed able to incorporate their demands. They assumed ownership in this case: they sent out flyers; they did the surveys necessary to find out if this was something the student body really wanted; they put together a well documented package with a good cost analysis. I took care of the negotiations with the contractors, dining services took care of the advertising and the marketing. We started out with a small prototype that takes up very little space in one of our many dining facilities.

Now we’re working on the next phase, which will require going back to the farmers and renegotiating contracts. These will be the same farmers who are now taking the University’s food waste, which goes for feed. So there’s a connection here; it’s not a matter of our finding people. We’ve been recycling our food wastes with these various farmers in and around New Jersey for the past twelve years. We’re actually paying them to take our food waste. We’re going to say to these same farmers, “Now we want to buy organically grown produce from you,” thus expanding the program by completing the loop.


Publication By

Kevin Lyons

Kevin Lyons began his career at Rutgers University in 1988 as director of procurement working on numerous projects and proposals relating to green purchasing and improving contracts, transforming the way the university did its daily business, from lighting and energy management to waste recycling and contract packaging. Early in his career at Rutgers, he successfully … Continued

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