Eight actions to advance green purchasing in Japanese municipalities

Japanese waterfront city

By: Elizabeth Bruns, Nicole Darnall, Kylie Flynn, Angela Fox

In 2001, Japan’s Ministry of Environment partnered with the Japanese Green Purchasing Network to create a “green product database” to help sub-national governments pursue sustainable purchasing. Municipal governments are encouraged to adopt green purchasing and have this database as a resource to guide their endeavors.Government purchases in Japan account for 19.8% of the gross domestic product. Examples of these items include vehicle fleets, construction materials, chemicals, electronics, and office materials. Collectively, they contribute to global climate change and other environmental concerns.

To address these environmental concerns and reduce costs, some local governments have implemented policies to encourage “green” or environmentally conscious purchasing. These policies include formal legal frameworks, ordinances, executive orders, resolutions, and administrative directives. They also include some formal approaches, such as adding green purchasing language to existing sustainability plans or energy conservation policies.Because of their environmental commitment, Japan requires that its national and municipal governments adopt green purchasing policies. Some municipal governments in Japan, however, are struggling with this implementation.

To assess municipal green purchasing, researchers at Waseda University’s Research Institute for Environmental Economics and Management partnered with Arizona State University’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative to conduct a national survey of 860 Japanese municipalities with 25,000 residents or more. They found that 53% of Japanese municipalities have a green purchasing policy, 29% have no policy, and 18% do not know if their municipality had such a policy. The survey findings point to eight actions that facilitate green purchasing in local Japanese governments. These actions can aid municipalities that lack green purchasing policies and strengthen local governments’ green purchasing initiatives.

Action 1 – Build on complementary policies and practices

Complementary policies and programs include sustainable building policies, greenhouse emissions policies, and other targeted policies like recycling. In other instances, municipalities have hired sustainability directors, formed environmental sustainability committees, and set goals/targets for environmental performance. Japanese municipalities with complementary policies and programs are in a stronger position to successfully implement green purchasing policies because they share similar internal capabilities necessary for managing both types of initiatives.

Action 2 – Use information about environmentally preferred products

Information access is important to the decision-making processes. This information includes access to product eco-labels or certifications, green product lists, and online databases of environmentally friendly products and services. The Japan Environmental Association makes a list of products that are eligible for Eco-mark, an official eco-label certified by the Japanese Ministry of Environment. This list covers most product categories for routine purchase, but may not cover all municipality purchases. More than half of directors (54 percent) in municipalities with green purchasing policies reported that when making purchasing decisions, access to information about the environmental impacts of products is available. About two-thirds of municipalities (65 percent) with green purchasing policies have access to product eco-label/certification information when making purchasing decisions. This compares to 38 percent of directors in municipalities without a green purchasing policy.

Action 3 – Utilize e-procurement systems that integrate environmental product information

In most Japanese municipalities, e-procurement systems that facilitate green purchasing often lack environmental product information. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, most municipal directors are required to change their positions every two or three years. As such, these directors may acquire skills related to green purchasing; however, they have limited opportunity for these skills to influence daily purchasing routines before moving to another position. Having an e-procurement system that integrates environmental information would help ensure continuity in green purchasing even when directors move. A second problem is the lack of capacity, especially in smaller municipalities that creates a major barrier to green purchasing.

Japan’s Ministry of Environment can address both concerns by developing a national procurement system that integrates environmental product information. Even with the absence of support, municipalities should still pursue a national e-procurement system. Managers should customize their e-procurement to add more green purchasing features and dashboards to help track spending related to green purchases.

Action 4 – Track spending related to green purchases

Organizations manage what they measure. Municipalities that track their green purchasing spending are more likely to elevate the importance of green purchasing in organizational practices and routines. Tracking spending relating to green purchasing puts municipalities in a better position to reduce costs associated with energy, water, fuel, and other expenditures. Monitoring green purchases creates opportunities for municipalities to develop goals and targets around green purchasing. Ideally, the tracking of green purchases should be integrated into an e-procurement system to assess green product attributes throughout the procurement process and as part of the contract management process. 

Action 5 – Enhance collaborative vendor relationships

Vendors can help facilitate Japanese municipalities’ adoption of green purchasing policies and increase the probability of implementation success. They can serve as useful allies that help manage the complexity associated with green purchasing. At times, there can be a limited number of green product options available, vendors can guide and educate municipalities towards more sustainable options. Municipalities with higher green purchasing success tend to work more closely with their vendors and rely on them as collaborators in implementing green purchasing policies.

Action 6 – Assign responsibility to top-level management

Municipalities show greater success when directors have implementation responsibility for their green purchasing policies. Leadership support and ownership can build organizational momentum and commitment. Municipalities that want to implement a successful green purchasing policy should contemplate the role of leadership and assign those responsibilities to top-level managers.

Action 7 – Foster a culture for innovation

Municipalities that adopt green purchasing policies should consider increasing employee incentives for developing innovative solutions around green purchasing. Incentives can help create a culture that encourages and rewards creativity. Incentives include internal recognitions, rewards, and creative competitions for green purchasing.

Action 8 – Participate in professional networks to share best practices

Municipalities should learn from established best practices. Professional networks such as Japan Green Purchasing Network, Japan Environment Association, and ICLEI Japan have emerged to support green purchasing in municipalities, companies, and other organizations. Participating in these networks can help members gain access to leading information on best practices. These best practices can introduce or strengthen green purchasing initiatives. Networks can also inform municipalities on external support like grants, educational programs, and awards/recognitions that can assist with successful implementation.

Japanese municipalities that adopt green purchasing policies are poised to address their environmental problems and reduce their costs. The eight actions described above can help advance their green purchasing efforts in Japanese municipalities and local governments worldwide. To learn more, read the full report findings found at https://sustainability.asu.edu/spri/japan.

Author notes:
Elizabeth Bruns is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Sustainability at at Arizona State University’s (ASU’s). She is exploring interests in urban farming and economic development. She plans to pursue an MS in Sustainability Leadership after her graduation in December 2020.

Nicole Darnall is Associate Dean at ASU’s College of Global Futures and Associate Director and Professor at ASU’s School of Sustainability. She is Co-founder of ASU’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative.

Kylie Flynn is completing her Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability at ASU with minors in Digital Culture and Parks and Protected Area Management. She is a Communications Intern for ASU’s Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative.

Angela Fox is completing her Master of Arts in Sustainability at ASU. She is interested in sustainability behaviors around social change.

Darnall, N., T. Arimura, T. Miyomoto, J.M. Stritch, S. Bretschneider, and L. Hsueh. 2018. Advancing Green Purchasing in Japanese Municipalities. Arizona State University, Center for Organization Research and Design, Sustainable Purchasing Research Initiative and Waseda University, Research Institute for Environmental Economics and Management.