Sustainability in Procurement Playbook for Higher Education: Proven Strategies for Maximizing Environmental Impact

Sustainable procurement practices are front and center at most colleges and universities these days as concern for environmental health becomes a bigger part of societal conversations. While two-thirds of Americans worry about the dangers of climate change, more than 90% of students say they are concerned. In fact, nearly half of students said they considered environmental sustainability in their enrollment decision. Forrester Consulting puts it this way: “Investing in sustainability is now a critical differentiator.” However, sustainability is more than a marketing tool. There are tangible benefits to sustainable procurement practices, including cost savings, longer product life cycles, and reductions in waste and carbon footprints.

What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainable Procurement?

Sustainable procurement is built upon three fundamental pillars: environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

1. Environmental sustainability

Procurement teams focus on goods and services that minimize the negative impact on the environment. It involves finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency and waste reduction, and the responsible use of natural resources throughout product life cycles.

2. Social Sustainability

Sustainable procurement also emphasizes ethical and responsible practices, such as engaging with companies that have fair labor conditions, promoting diversity and inclusion, and supporting local communities. It also involves sources that demonstrate excellence in safeguarding human rights, worker safety, and the well-being of stakeholders involved in their supply chain.

3. Economic Sustainability

Creating long-term, economically viable procurement practices considers factors such as cost-effectiveness, resource efficiency, and sustainable economic development. Merging procurement and sustainability can help higher education institutions make sourcing and purchasing decisions that meet operational needs while contributing positively to these three pillars.

How Procurement and Sustainability Can Reduce Environmental Impact

For colleges and universities, sustainability is at the top of the list. A survey of more than 100 decision-makers at colleges and universities revealed that 84% said implementing or maturing their sustainability initiatives was their number one priority—ranking higher than improving profitability or improving the student experience. Against this backdrop, sustainability has been added to the growing list of initiatives that procurement teams have to juggle when making sourcing and purchasing decisions. But, weighing the environmental impact in procurement can make a significant difference in reducing an academic institution’s carbon footprint in a wide range of applications, such as:

Waste Reduction

Implementing sustainable procurement strategies can reduce waste by prioritizing products made from recycled or recyclable materials, minimizing packaging, and encouraging the reuse of materials. Examples:
  • Purchasing recycled paper and paper products for office and classroom use.
  • Eliminating single-use plastic utensils and containers in food service.
  • Sourcing furniture and equipment with minimal packaging or made from recycled materials.

Energy Efficiency

Procuring energy-efficient products and services, such as ENERGY STAR-certified appliances, sustainable lighting systems, and renewable energy sources, helps significantly reduce energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Examples:
  • Upgrading HVAC systems to more energy-efficient solutions.
  • Installing LED lighting systems in classrooms, offices, and common areas.
  • Adding solar panels to buildings or contracting with renewal energy providers.

Water Conservation

Selecting water-efficient products and services, such as low-flow fixtures, drought-resistant landscaping, and water recycling systems, can help conserve water resources on campus. Examples:
  • Installing low-flow faucets, showerheads, and toilets in campus buildings and residence halls.
  • Implementing drought-resistant landscaping and efficient irrigation systems for campus grounds.
  • Sourcing water-efficient washing machines and dishwashers for laundry and dining facilities.

Sustainable Materials

Opting for products made from sustainable materials, such as certified sustainable wood, recycled plastics, or bio-based materials, may reduce the strain on natural resources and support sustainable industries. Examples:
  • Procuring furniture made from sustainable wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  • Using recycled plastic or bio-based materials for campus signage and outdoor furniture.
  • Purchasing construction materials with recycled content for new buildings or renovations.

Transportation and Logistics

Optimizing transportation and logistics through strategies like consolidated shipments, fuel-efficient vehicles, and route optimization can reduce the carbon footprint associated with procurement activities. Examples:
  • Transitioning campus vehicle fleets to electric or hybrid models.
  • Launching a bike rental or bike share program to reduce emissions on campus.
  • Installing electric vehicle charging stations to support EV adoption.
Procurement teams today recognize the importance of green procurement and the significant impact it can have in reducing environmental degradation.

Real-World Examples of Sustainable Procurement in Higher Education

Many colleges and universities are incorporating climate education into their curriculum in response to student concerns about the environment. As many students plan careers in environmental science, the job outlook is bright. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data shows that the demand for environmental specialists is growing at about 6% a year—faster than the average of other jobs—and adding nearly 7,000 new jobs each year. This focus extends beyond the classroom. Here are just a few real-world examples of what sustainable procurement includes at some of the higher education institutions that are taking a leadership role in promoting sustainable procurement.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University ranks as the top school in the U.S. and number two globally in STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in 2023.

Colorado State University

CSU has 42 solar arrays and is on track to meet its goal of 100% renewal energy by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. One solar array was installed on the rooftop of its student center and was funded by students.

University of California at Merced

UC Merced builds sustainability into every aspect of the campus. Founded in 2005, sustainability was built into its initial planning. Sustainable buildings with energy-efficient designs, sustainable transportation, organic foods and composting, and solar energy are all part of the mix. UC Merced generates 35,000 Mwh of renewable energy annually.

Cornell University

Cornell has 28 certified LEED buildings on campus and a goal to become carbon neutral by 2035. Ranked #1 in sustainability ratings in the Ivy League, sustainability efforts have already reduced carbon emissions by 50% from the 2008 baseline.

University of California at Irvine

UCI was recognized as a leader in green construction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a focus on its sustainable buildings, transportation, and waste reduction practices. UC Irvine was the first campus in the country to convert to an all-electric bus fleet.

Middlebury College

Middlebury College has invested in solar, wind, and biomass solutions. With the purchase of carbon credits, it achieved its goal of becoming carbon neutral at its Vermont institution.

Integrating Procurement and Sustainability in Higher Education

What does sustainable procurement include? Here are some of the key steps to build your sustainable procurement strategy.
  • Establish clear sustainability goals: Define measurable targets for reducing environmental impact and promoting ethical sourcing practices aligned with the institution’s broader sustainability objectives.
  • Integrate sustainability criteria: Embed sustainability considerations into procurement processes, including supplier selection, contract negotiations, product specifications, and performance evaluations.
  • Collaborate with stakeholders: Engage all decision-makers involved in purchasing to ensure alignment and commitment to sustainable procurement practices.
  • Source and select based on sustainability: Prioritize services and products that meet environmental and social responsibility criteria, considering factors like recycled materials, energy efficiency, and transparency in supply chains.
  • Choose the right products and services: Focus on sustainable options that offer cost savings and reduce environmental impact—starting with items that will produce the biggest benefits.
  • Utilize technology and data: Leverage technology and data analytics to track environmental metrics, demonstrate tangible results, and continuously improve sustainable procurement strategies.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Sustainable Procurement

Sustainable procurement practices on campus demonstrate a commitment by students and staff to reducing environmental impacts and promoting eco-friendly practices. There are, however, pros and cons to sustainable procurement.


  • Environmental protection: Sustainable procurement practices contribute to reducing the environmental impact of procurement by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing waste and preserving natural resources.
  • Cost savings: Many sustainable products and services, such as energy-efficient equipment and waste reduction initiatives, can lead to long-term cost savings through reduced energy consumption, improved resource efficiency, and waste minimization.
  • Improved reputation and stakeholder engagement: By demonstrating a commitment to sustainability, higher education institutions can enhance their reputation, attract eco-conscious students and staff, and strengthen relationships with stakeholders that value environmental and social responsibility.
  • Compliance with regulations and policies: Sustainable procurement practices can help institutions comply with environmental regulations, institutional sustainability policies, and sustainability initiatives or certifications.

Potential Disadvantages

  • Higher upfront costs: Some sustainable products and services might be initially more costly compared to conventional alternatives, although these costs can often be offset by long-term savings.
  • Limited supplier availability: In some cases, there may be a limited number of suppliers offering sustainable products or services, potentially leading to reduced competition and higher prices.
  • Information and expertise gaps: Evaluating the sustainability credentials of products and services can be complex, requiring specialized knowledge and resources to make informed decisions.
  • Resistance to change: Implementing new sustainable procurement practices may face resistance from stakeholders who are reluctant to change established processes or perceive sustainability initiatives as burdensome or unnecessary.
E&I Cooperative Services can help you overcome these challenges by providing competitively solicited cooperative contracts for sustainable goods and services.

How E&I Cooperative Services Helps with Sustainable Procurement

E&I Cooperative Services is a trusted partner for higher education institutions seeking to deliver on their procurement and sustainability goals. E&I offers a range of services and resources to support sustainable procurement efforts, including:

Sustainable Products and Services

E&I Cooperative Services offers cooperative contracts with leading manufacturers and suppliers for eco-friendly products. You can view these ready-to-use contracts for a wide variety of sustainable solutions for your campus, including products and services. E&I Cooperative Services also provides ready access to eco-conscious manufacturers that use environmentally sound manufacturing, shipping, and other ESG practices.

Category Expertise

The team at E&I Cooperative Services includes experts with years of experience in procurement in higher education, including category specialists who can provide guidance and best practices for sustainable procurement strategies—helping you identify the best options for reducing your environmental impact.

Supplier Collaboration

E&I Cooperative Services works closely with suppliers to encourage sustainable practices and source goods and services that colleges and universities need.

Education Focused

As the only non-profit, member-owned sourcing cooperative that focuses solely on education, E&I Cooperative Services provides a depth of experience in negotiating contracts that meet the unique needs of higher education. These contracts typically include pricing, terms, and conditions that are more favorable to colleges and universities.

Cooperative Contracts

With the collective purchasing power of over 6,000 member institutions, E&I Cooperative Services can negotiate significant volume discounts. In most cases, prices are lower than individual schools could negotiate on their own. By leveraging the expertise and resources of E&I Cooperative Services, higher education institutions can streamline their sustainable procurement efforts, access a wide range of sustainable products and services, and benefit from collaborative partnerships and expert guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions—FAQs

What are the principles of sustainable procurement? The key principles include life cycle thinking, environmental stewardship, social responsibility, economic viability, transparency and accountability, and continuous improvement. What are the goals of sustainable procurement? The primary goals are reducing environmental impact and promoting social responsibility throughout the supply chain. What are good sustainable procurement practices? Good practices include waste reduction, energy efficiency, water conservation, using sustainable materials, sustainable transportation and logistics, and supporting ethical suppliers. What role do third-party certifications play in sustainable procurement? Third-party certifications like ENERGY STAR, ECOLOGO, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and others provide credible verification of a product or service’s sustainability claims, helping institutions make smart choices. How can higher education institutions get started with sustainable procurement? Start by assessing current practices, setting sustainability goals aligned with the institution’s values, and engaging key stakeholders. Prioritize high-impact areas to meet your goals. Partnering with organizations like E&I Cooperative Service can provide broad access to resources and sustainable options.
Contact E&I Cooperative Services today to view available contracts to improve your sustainable procurement strategies.


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