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Environmentally Preferred Purchasing

Product Attributes

Attributes are the most important environmental, human health and social characteristics related to a product or service throughout its lifecycle. The stages of a product's lifecycle include extraction and processing of raw materials, transportation, manufacturing, distribution, use, and handling at the end of a product's life.

The Washington State Department of Ecology uses the attributes discussed here to help evaluate the environmental and human health performance of goods and services. Reputable standards and certifications organizations also provide excellent information about human health, environmental and social characteristics of products and services.

Generally, the more positive attributes that apply to a product or service, the more environmentally preferable it is. However, some attributes may be more critical than others depending on the product. For example, low toxicity is a highly important attribute to consider when purchasing cleaning products.

Here is the list of attributes for green purchasing:

Air Quality

Protecting air quality is crucial to public and environmental health. Outdoor air quality is compromised by emissions from a complex set of sources. Over 50 percent of the air pollution in Washington State comes from transportation sources, including motor vehicles, planes, trains, and marine vessels [1]. Air pollution also results from pesticide usage, agricultural smoke and dust, resource and energy extraction industries, and commercial and industrial processes. Air pollution poses serious threats to human health, including cancer, asthma, and other types of lung damage [2].

Emissions from cleaning products, paint, furniture, carpet, glues, solvents, and other products can degrade indoor air quality. Poor indoor air quality irritates eyes and lungs, and can cause asthma, headaches, fatigue, low morale, and absenteeism [3].

Climate Change

Climate change refers to dramatic changes in climate patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Washington State is especially vulnerable to climate change. Extreme weather, hotter temperatures, reduced snow pack, and a rising sea level are four major ways that climate change can disrupt our environment and economy.

Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in the earth's atmosphere. The primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions are:
  • Transportation (cars, trucks, planes, and ships)
  • Buildings (construction and operation)
  • Land use changes (deforestation and urban sprawl)
  • Agriculture (livestock wastes, fertilizer use, and burning crop residue)
  • Cement production

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the conservation of energy in two distinct ways:
  • Energy-efficient products use less energy during operation. The federal government's Energy Star program typically identifies these products.
  • Products with low-embodied energy use less energy over their entire lifecycle. A product that is manufactured with raw materials that are extracted in energy efficient ways, transported short distances to retail, and reused at the end of life has low-embodied energy. Embodied energy is a particularly important consideration when purchasing building materials.
Energy efficiency reduces greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and our dependence on foreign oil imports.

Packaging Efficiency

Packaging efficiency means that manufacturers and vendors use minimal, reusable, recyclable, and bulk packaging for their products. Some electronics companies, for example, ship computers in returnable and reusable cartons. Packaging efficiency translates into reduced consumption of energy and natural resources.

Product Longevity

Less solid waste is created when products are durable, upgradeable, repairable, or refillable. For example, carpet squares that can be replaced when worn or stained are a preferable purchase when carpeting is the chosen flooring option.

Product Miles

Locally manufactured products are made near the area where they are sold. Shorter shipping distances reduce energy use and pollution. Purchasing locally supports communities and local jobs.

Product Take-back

Product take-back refers to manufacturers' programs to receive consumer products at the end of their useful lives. The manufacturer either refurbishes the product for continued use or recycles its components to remove toxic substances and other materials from the waste stream. For example, Washington State Law requires computer manufacturers to provide take-back programs for their products by 2009.


Recyclability refers to the amount of material in a product that can be extracted or reused to make new products. For example, furniture manufacturers have designed furniture to be disassembled, so usable parts can be reused in new or re-furbished furniture. Recycling products at the end of their useful lives can decrease waste generation and can lower demand on natural resources [4].

Recycled Content

Recycled content refers to the portion of a product made from materials directed from the waste stream. The two types of recycled content are:
  • Post-industrial (or pre-consumer) recycled content refers to excess materials collected during the manufacturing process.
  • Post-consumer recycled content refers to materials collected after products have been used.
Purchasing products with recycled content keeps waste out of landfills, saves demand on natural resources, and strengthens the markets for recycled materials.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources regenerate at faster rates than they are consumed. For example, gasoline is refined from petroleum, which is not a renewable resource, while solar energy is plentiful.

Sustainable Labor Practices

Sustainable labor practices include livable wages, a safe and healthy work environment, the right to collective bargaining, reasonable work weeks, health benefits, no child labor, forced labor, discrimination, corporal punishment or verbal abuse, and public reporting concerning these practices. Social Accountability International. "About Us." [5]

Toxic Chemicals

Exposure to toxic chemicals can result in cancer, developmental delays, endocrine disruption, immune system problems, and many other health issues. Recent research shows that chemical exposures at much lower levels than previously thought can be harmful to human health.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants are examples of highly toxic chemicals found in products purchased by state and local governments. Product redesign, such as furniture that uses structural rather than chemical means to retard flames, can often achieve the same function safely.

Water Efficiency

Water efficiency means the conservation of water during the lifecycle of a product or service. Water efficiency is important because of the multiple and competing demands on Washington's water resources [6].


  1. Washington State Department of Ecology, Air Quality Program.
  2. Washington State Department of Ecology, Air Quality Program. "Air Pollution and Health."
  3. Culver, Alicia et al. "Cleaning for Health: Products and Practices for a Safer Indoor Environment." INFORM, Inc. 2002.
  4. The Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center (PPRC). "Product Stewardship for Manufacturers."
  5. Social Accountability International. "About SA8000"
  6. Washington State Department of Ecology, "Issue up Close: Managing our Water Successfully." January 2007, Ecology Pub #06-11-023
For EPP technical assistance, contact:

Tina Simcich
Email: tina.simcich@ecy.wa.gov
(360) 407-7517

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