Mar. 3, 2016 12:39 pm

City Council: Sustainable procurement would be great, but what’s the cost?

At a council hearing this week on sustainable procurement, three council members in attendance showed support -- but concern over upfront costs.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown hears testimonies from Philly's social enterprises.

(Grainy photo by Tony Abraham

From San Francisco and Seattle to New York City and Boston, cities across the country have successfully implemented sustainable procurement policies. What’s the holdup in Philadelphia?

That was the spirit resonating throughout council chambers yesterday as three out of seven members of the Committee on the Environment heard testimonies from Philadelphia’s sustainability community.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who chairs the committee, was the only member to stay attentive and in her seat. Councilwoman Helen Gym and Councilman Al Taubenberger both shuffled in and out of the room — the former really only attentive during topics surrounding the school district and the latter seemingly more concerned with cost than tactical implementation.

To summarize the hearing: All three were cheerleaders, all three wanted more specifics on cost and strategy and everyone sang the praises of local sustainability pioneer and entrepreneur Judy Wicks.

Deputy Procurement Commissioner Trevor Day said the city has made great strides in gradually modifying procurement policy.

Deputy Procurement Commissioner Trevor Day said the city has made “great strides” in gradually modifying procurement policy. Day referenced the city’s LED street lights and said 30 percent of municipal office paper is recycled. Taubenberger was curious about the cost of boosting that number to 100 percent. When Reynolds Brown asked how Day would grade the city in terms of departments collaborating instead of working in silos on the procurement front, Day gave the city a B.

Sustainability Director Christine Knapp referred to the city’s Greenworks plan, which suggests the institution of a sustainable procurement policy that considers sustainable alternatives when government contracts are being renewed. The city, she said, is a member of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a multi-city coalition developing best practices for reforming procurement policy.

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Overall, Knapp said the city has made some progress, but needs to focus on the lifetime benefit and costs of sustainable assets rather than upfront costs.

Sustainable Business Network Executive Director Jamie Gauthier, whose recent advocacy led to proposed legislation on the sustainable business front earlier this month, suggested the city create a cross-sector task force. The task force would be composed of sustainability stakeholders who would evaluate where the city currently stands, what the private sector has to offer and subsequently make suggestions to push procurement policy forward.

“Procurement as a whole needs to be daylighted,” Gauthier said, adding that smaller businesses want to participate, but find the process complicated. Reynolds Brown agreed.

"Procurement as a whole needs to be daylighted."
Jamie Gauthier

“There’s a cost,” Taubenberger said. For example, the city purchasing hybrid cars for its fleet over traditional gas-powered vehicles is an additional expense. After asking what grants might be available to offset the cost, he added, “It has to be proven that it works. Everything we do to protect the environment is an investment in our future.”

The same cost-concerned sentiments hovered over testimonies on local healthy food from Green Justice Philly‘s Anthony Giancatarino, Food Policy Advisory Council’s Ann Karlen and Food & Water Watch‘s Sam Bernhardt.

Gym inquired as to the scale of fresh farm food deliveries, asking if they’re reliable enough to supply Philadelphia’s schools with food. She was also concerned with the cost.

“We’re paying almost nothing for school meals. We use the surplus dollars from federal reimbursements to offset the costs – that’s how little money is going into it,” she said.

Gym asked if fresh farm food deliveries are reliable enough to supply Philadelphia's schools.

“In many cases, it’s not necessarily more expensive,” said Karlen.

Three representatives of local social enterprises — Solar StatesMicah Gold-Markel, Cosmic Catering’s Adam Howell and My MilkCrate‘s Morgan Berman — were last to testify.

Berman offered her company’s technology as a resource. Using the app, the city and its constituents can dig through the company’s database and discover sustainable businesses and resources. Taubenberger thought that was pretty nifty.

Gold-Markel testified that in the past six years, there have been “major decreases” in the cost of solar — from equipment to installation.

“I’d love to see RFPs issued for facilities around the city to see if we can beat current prices,” he said, adding that the financial return on investment will reveal itself with time. “This is a long-term view. Solar panels are warranteed for 25 years. Over that period we can show significant savings for what the city is currently paying.”


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