The Transformation In Buying

Bill Walsh | October 11, 2007 | Policies

Tom Cooper

We are getting healthier products without sacrificing quality or price, says

Tom Cooper of Kaiser Permanente

The following is one in a series of articles profiling transformations in the building materials market.

A page one story from the October 2, 2007 Wall Street Journal [1] describes a "transformation in buying" by corporate purchasing managers that both meets our definition of a complete change and signals the future of the green building materials market. [2]

According to the Journal, "Purchasing offices were once corporate backwaters, . . . Top buyers today need different skills and often have higher aspirations. Sometimes they're engineers or others with operating experience that gives them more intimate knowledge of how their company's products are made . . . they also have to make sure they pick dependable sources . . . ." (emphasis added)

The Journal recognizes today's purchasing manager as a critical member of corporate leadership teams that successfully meet production goals in an increasingly complex global economy. Purchasing managers are also on the front lines of meeting corporate sustainability goals that require an unprecedented level of attention to the environmental and human health impacts of their purchases.

In our last HBNews we cited a New York Times report that Home Depot's suppliers claimed that more than 60,000 of the products currently on store shelves are already green. The Times also noted that Home Depot's purchasing managers are wise to much of the greenwash: "By the standards of [Home Depot Vice President Ron] Jarvis -- who fertilizes his own home garden with a liquefied worm waste product packaged in recycled soda bottles and fills his swimming pool with salt water to avoid putting chlorine into the environment -- only 2,500 of the products made the cut." [3]

High standards alone are not enough. Leading toy maker Mattel recalled $30 million worth of toys this year because of excessive lead content [link no longer available]. If Mattel can't trust a long term supplier to keep lead out of children's toys just two years after children's vinyl lunchboxes with hazardous lead levels made headlines, can anyone selling less-regulated Chinese-made vinyl products -- mini blinds for example, which in 1996 were found to have caused lead poisoning in children -- be sure that they are lead-free? In order to meet environmental health and sustainability objectives, not to mention avoid public relations disasters and litigation, procurement professionals are asserting their right to know what is in the products they buy.

Tom Cooper, who has helped lead Kaiser Permanente's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program for years, says that purchasing professionals "must become a lot more sophisticated in the questions they ask, and also in following up on the answers to those questions." Kaiser Permanente writes its EPP guidelines into every request for proposal it publishes, and provides its Procurement and Supply staff with independent training on the environmental and human health goals the EPP guidelines are meant to advance. "Many manufacturers are surprised to learn from our questions how much they don't know about their own products." Cooper says. "But we are seeing a profound impact as a result. We are getting safer products without sacrificing quality or price, and that is what is going to really transform the market."


[1] Aeppel, Timothy, "Scramble for goods gives corporate buyers a lift", Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2007

[2] trans • for • ma • tion _n._ 1. A complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness. This definition is quoted from Microsoft Word dictionary (Word 204 for Mac, Version 11.3.5). Other dictionaries describe the degree of change variously as "marked," "thorough," or "dramatic."

[3] At Home Depot, How Green Is That Chainsaw?, Clifford Krauss. New York Times, June 25, 2007.