The Power of Purchasing

Story posted December 05, 2012

For the Eco Reps at heart, few things are more satisfying than walking into Hawthorne-Longfellow Library and seeing copy paper consisting of 100% recycled content and the collection bins for "already been used on one side" paper. And we may not even get the chance to snoop around and see the reduced amount of office supply packaging or that the folders are made of recycled material, too. Good news, then: we did the snooping for you. As it turns out, nearly every corner of campus participates in what you might call “green purchasing.”

Green purchasing is voluntarily prioritized by the Office Eco Reps. In addition to the sixteen student eco reps that monitor environmental issues in the first year dorms and college houses, the Office Eco Reps help foster a sustainability-friendly atmosphere in work places. Bowdoin's Office Eco Reps are a diverse and enthusiastic group.  Representing over 20 buildings and departments across campus.  Together the office eco reps influence how Bowdoin purchases paper, ink, folders, and kitchen items. It’s partly because of their hard work that Bowdoin has seen marked decreases in paper usage on campus and substantial increases in paper with recycled content.

Bowdoin keeps detailed records about its paper purchasing, and through that data, we can see a steady decrease in paper use over the past five fiscal years. Specifically, Bowdoin reduced its paper consumption by 36% in the past five fiscal years. According to data collected by Chris Taylor, Assistant Director of Campus Services: “Probably the most significant piece of information that is buried in the raw information below is that our usage of non-recycled paper dropped by 46% from 155 cases in FY1011 to 83 in FY1112.” Today, 91% of Bowdoin’s paper purchases have recycled content, and of that, 67% are 100% recycled content.

Fiscal yr.







Total usage (cases)







% change from prev. yr.

Decrease of  1.9%

Decrease of 9.25%

Decrease of 3.5%

Decrease of 7.5%

Decrease of 20%

Increase of 27.9%

So in what other capacities are departments and offices enacting change? Sustainable Bowdoin went to two academic departments—History and Asian Studies—to get a better picture. In the history department, Josie Johnson (an Office Eco Rep) has found that green purchasing is not difficult. She purchases corn-based silverware,encourages faculty to use travel mugs or ceramic mugs, keeps a tall stack of already been used (ABU) paper near the printer and fax machine, sends back toner and ink cartridges for recycling, and participates in techno trash recycling.

We asked Johnson what the biggest change for the History Department has been in the past few years. "Hands down, packaging," Johnson replied. Office Max, the College office supply distributor, did away with their cardboard boxes and extensive bubble wrapping about one year ago. Not only do Post-it Notes no longer occupy boxes 134 times the size of the object, but the reusable packaging keeps costs down.  Another improvements by Office Max has been a switch to limited delivery days.  Where they used to deliver to Bowdoin five days a week, that is now down to three - which may require more planning on the part of Bowdoin staff, but ultimately it reduces carbon emissions.

Similarly, in the Asian Studies Department, Suzanne Astolfi (also an Office Eco Rep) talked about her efforts to procure greener products. "We have moved from purchasing reams of paper with a lower percentage of recycled content to 100% recycled content paper," Astolfi told us.

Because the College is such a large customer, when we demand recycled paper products, distributors respond favorably. When combined with their improved quality of recycled products and clear labels on the website that make ordering easy, green purchasing becomes less experimental and more the new norm.

An interesting side note that we learned: when the individuals in Bowdoin offices order green or recycled products for their workplace, they are more apt to purchase such items at home. Johnson explained that at home she now keeps ABU paper handy, purchases recycled materials, and avoids items with excessive packaging. "If it's only 50 cents more, why not?" Johnson asked rhetorically. "Some could say that that adds up, but if it's better for the environment, that extra cost is well worth it."

Bowdoin's EcoReps have other ideas for further greening Bowdoin's purchasing habits.  Says Astolfi, "I still believe that having so many different people/departments across campus ordering their own supplies is not the most efficient or effective way of making sure the correct supplies are being ordered. If all orders went through a central locale, we would ensure that the College is in control, not each individual department." Additionally, several Office Eco Reps mentioned the desire to switch to refillable ink cartridges. Based on the success of the Office Eco Reps so far, such improvements seem like real possibilities.

Thanks to the determination of Bowdoin employees, the accumulative effect of green purchasing makes a difference in everyone's carbon footprint.