image title
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 Now


image title

Gully washers and boulder rollers: How monsoons shape the desert

Arizona's desert is sculpted by summer storms — and the small ones add up.
July 7, 2017

ASU geomorphologist talks about the types of floods that do the most to sculpt the land — and it's not the ones you'd expect

Editor's note: This is the first in our weeklong monsoon series. To read the second story, about social media's influence on storm coverage, click hereFor the final story, looking at monsoons from a Native American cultural viewpoint, click here.

Fly above the desert and the paradox is obvious: It’s a place with almost no water, but it’s entirely shaped by water. Washes that flow maybe every 20 or 30 years are etched into hardpan far from mountains.

Monsoons define the desert by driving physical change. Summer storms sculpt the land. Sediment is deposited. An old channel becomes silted up. A new channel is carved in another place. Like the creative process, some of it is a mystery.

Arizona State University geomorphologist Kelin Whipple studies how the Earth is shaped by climate, tectonics and surface processes. One time he was examining an enormous boulder at a ranch near Bagdad, Arizona. The rancher called the storm that moved it a “boulder roller.”

A storm that tosses around boulders the size of minivans doesn’t come around often. People who live close to the land sit up and pay attention to events like that. “They know they’re quite rare,” said Whipple, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Those rare floods chisel the land more dramatically, but it’s the gully washers, not the boulder rollers, that do more work year in and year out.

“A day of high flow is still just one day out of 365,” Whipple said. “A flood that occurs on an annual basis is just not a big flood. Floods that really do the work of deepening canyons and transporting sediments, those are floods that occur at a minimum once every two years. ... It’s the smaller ones that add up. We don’t know really in a quantitative way where is the range of floods that do the most work, either in a mountain environment or a desert environment — we don’t know that very well.”

In the 1950s geologists began to learn that the floods that do the most work over time are the smaller biannual floods.

“They don’t do all that much, but it happens pretty frequently,” Whipple said. “A hundred-year flood does an awful lot, but it happens so infrequently that two-year events add up to more.”

Annual monsoon flooding doesn’t do much at all. It takes critical velocity plus depth to move large material, like gravel. (In geology, gravel is anything larger than sand: granules, pebbles, cobbles and boulders.) Certain thresholds of shearing stress, force that causes layers or parts to slide upon each other in opposite directions, need to be topped before anything happens.

“You need a certain amount of shear stress before you’re going to get gravels actually moving,” Whipple said. “Usually a two-year (flood) will get gravels moving so you get some change. If you’ve got a system that’s armored with a bunch of big boulders, or if you’re asking what floods can actually rip in and deepen the canyon, erode deeper over time, it’s got to work its way into rock and might have higher shear stresses and pull out big blocks, then you’re talking about a five- or 10-year flood to even exceed the shear stress and get anything to happen.”

There are two big rain events in Southwestern deserts: the monsoons and occasional hurricanes wafting up from the Gulf of California. Geologists have a limited amount of data to work with. It only goes back 20 or 30 years, or at most 100. Existing data hints at a tapering-off of flood size. Scientists know how big floods get, but not how often they happen. Floods that would wipe Phoenix or Tucson off the map don’t happen at all.

“They just don’t get much bigger than X,” Whipple said. “It never happens. There’s no such thing as a 5,000-year flood.”


Top photo by Nicholas Hartmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now