Anthony Fomin

Buy Clean and Buy Fair

On February 15, 2022, the White House established the first national Buy Clean Task Force. Along with state and local Buy Clean policies, including recent efforts in Washington state, this new task force will play a key role in shaping federal Buy Clean policy to prioritize the use of low-carbon construction materials in publicly funded projects.

What is Buy Clean?

Buy Clean is a type of procurement policy focused on building materials purchased with government funding. The government has enormous purchasing power: nearly half of all cement used in the United States, for example, is used for public construction. Buy Clean policies require reporting or prioritization of building materials that are manufactured with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Most states, including Washington, do not consider the carbon emissions from building materials when awarding contracts for publicly funded infrastructure projects. Manufacturers whose products meet higher environmental standards can be at a competitive disadvantage when competing with overseas manufacturers with lower production costs that pollute more.

What is Embodied Carbon?

According to the 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction (page 12), emissions from the production of building materials make up a significant portion—at least 11%—of all global energy-related emissions, as depicted in Figure 1 (in these charts, “construction industry” refers to the percentage of overall industry related to manufacturing building materials, such as steel, cement, and glass).

Figure 1: Global share of buildings and construction final energy and emissions, 2018

These emissions are referred to as embodied carbon, meaning greenhouse gas emissions that are generated across the life cycle of construction materials, including the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal. "Cradle to gate" embodied carbon captures the earliest phases of a product’s life from extraction through manufacturing and is the focus of industrial policies like Buy Clean.

Embodied carbon is calculated using life cycle assessment (LCA). The global warming potential (GWP) calculated using LCA estimates the embodied carbon for a product, process, or entire infrastructure project. Buy Clean policies focus on the embodied carbon emissions of a product, rather than an entire project.

Buy Clean policies are also material neutral, meaning that they focus on the environmental impact within a category (i.e., comparing two producers of steel rebar) and do not impact material choice (i.e., comparing steel rebar and wood).

Why Embodied Carbon Emissions Matter

It is crucial to consider embodied carbon emissions when evaluating a product’s environmental impact. Too often, carbon loopholes emerge when countries do not accurately account for the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of imported products.

In fact, an estimated 25% of the global carbon footprint is embodied in imported goods. Buy Clean policies are one way to target this loophole by requiring publicly funded building projects to consider the emissions from building materials production.

While Buy Clean policies vary in terms of which materials and projects are eligible, all typically require disclosure of supply chain emissions through a mechanism called an environmental product declaration (EPD). Product manufacturers provide EPDs to communicate a product’s environmental and health impacts based on the results of an LCA. There are multiple internationally recognized standards (ISO 14025; ISO 14040; ISO 14044, ISO 21930) that govern how to perform the LCA and provide product category rules that give material-specific guidance.

EPDs can be thought of as “nutrition labels” showing a product’s environmental impact and are already used by certification systems such as LEED. There are a growing number of tools and resources for manufacturers, architects, contractors, and others across the building industry to measure and report embodied carbon. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), an initiative incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum, is a free database of construction EPDs that contractors can use to select lower-carbon products.

In addition to disclosure of EPDs, some Buy Clean policies also set GWP limits for eligible products and use incentives to support implementation. Here in Washington (see below), policy advocates and legislators have taken the additional step to integrate labor standards in the Buy Clean and Buy Fair Act. The “Buy Fair” provisions require firms to disclose their supplier code of conduct, if any, and basic working conditions at their facilities.

Buy Clean Originates in the Bay Area

The Buy Clean movement started in 2016 when a coalition led by the Blue Green Alliance, Sierra Club, United Steelworkers, and other businesses, labor groups, and environmental organizations pushed for a new law in California.

The coalition was spurred to action by the bidding process for a new portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which ended with a steel contract going to an overseas bidder. Blue Green Alliance analysis found that if the project had used steel from US manufacturers instead, it could have avoided an estimated 180,000 tons of carbon emissions.  

In 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the first Buy Clean policy in the country, the Buy Clean California Act. Since then, other state and local governments have introduced similar policies, including bills in Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.  

Washington Gets in the Game

During the 2021-2022 Washington legislative session, Representative Davina Duerr introduced the Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act. Along with Senator Derek Stanford’s companion bill, it would have required firms to submit EPDs and information about labor standards for materials used in constructing and renovating publicly funded buildings. Previously, Representative Beth Doglio had introduced two Buy Clean bills (HB 2412 and HB 2744). While neither bill passed, they helped fund a study by the Carbon Leadership Forum to review and evaluate embodied carbon policies.

The Substitute Bill of the most recent Buy Clean and Buy Fair policy (HB 1103) included these provisions:

  • Projects are eligible if they receive capital budget funds for buildings over 50,000 square feet or renovations costing more than 50% of the assessed value
  • Firms submit EPDs for 90% of the cost of covered materials: structural concrete, structural steel, reinforcing steel, and engineered wood
  • Firms submit any health certifications for the product; any steps taken to ensure high labor standards throughout the supply chain; and working conditions at production facilities
  • The Department of Commerce is authorized to provide financial assistance to small businesses to help with the costs of EPDs
  • The University of Washington College of Built Environments will create a public database for covered projects

Washington’s 2021-2023 operating budget funded the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum, along with the Department of Commerce, to create the database mentioned above and conduct a case study analysis.

Additionally, the 2021-2023 capital budget funded two Buy Clean and Buy Fair pilot projects through the University of Washington. Information on these projects is available in a progress report from December 2021.

Looking Ahead

Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington did not pass in the 2022 legislative session. However, there is optimism that movement at the federal level will catalyze wide-reaching transformation throughout the industrial sector in the United States. The implementation of Buy Clean, including key funding that has yet to pass in Build Back Better, remains to be seen.

If implemented well, a federal Buy Clean policy could pave the way for more state and local governments to follow with their own versions. There have also been recent international efforts to move toward industrial decarbonization.

In Washington, the passage of Buy Clean legislation in the 2023 session would be a critical step toward reducing embodied carbon emissions.

Ruby Moore-Bloom

Researcher
Ruby joined the Clean Energy Transition Institute in January 2022 as a Researcher. She is committed to working toward a clean energy future in the Northwest.
FULL BIO & OTHER POSTS

Buy Clean and Buy Fair

On February 15, 2022, the White House established the first national Buy Clean Task Force. Along with state and local Buy Clean policies, including recent efforts in Washington state, this new task force will play a key role in shaping federal Buy Clean policy to prioritize the use of low-carbon construction materials in publicly funded projects.

What is Buy Clean?

Buy Clean is a type of procurement policy focused on building materials purchased with government funding. The government has enormous purchasing power: nearly half of all cement used in the United States, for example, is used for public construction. Buy Clean policies require reporting or prioritization of building materials that are manufactured with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Most states, including Washington, do not consider the carbon emissions from building materials when awarding contracts for publicly funded infrastructure projects. Manufacturers whose products meet higher environmental standards can be at a competitive disadvantage when competing with overseas manufacturers with lower production costs that pollute more.

What is Embodied Carbon?

According to the 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction (page 12), emissions from the production of building materials make up a significant portion—at least 11%—of all global energy-related emissions, as depicted in Figure 1 (in these charts, “construction industry” refers to the percentage of overall industry related to manufacturing building materials, such as steel, cement, and glass).

Figure 1: Global share of buildings and construction final energy and emissions, 2018

These emissions are referred to as embodied carbon, meaning greenhouse gas emissions that are generated across the life cycle of construction materials, including the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal. "Cradle to gate" embodied carbon captures the earliest phases of a product’s life from extraction through manufacturing and is the focus of industrial policies like Buy Clean.

Embodied carbon is calculated using life cycle assessment (LCA). The global warming potential (GWP) calculated using LCA estimates the embodied carbon for a product, process, or entire infrastructure project. Buy Clean policies focus on the embodied carbon emissions of a product, rather than an entire project.

Buy Clean policies are also material neutral, meaning that they focus on the environmental impact within a category (i.e., comparing two producers of steel rebar) and do not impact material choice (i.e., comparing steel rebar and wood).

Why Embodied Carbon Emissions Matter

It is crucial to consider embodied carbon emissions when evaluating a product’s environmental impact. Too often, carbon loopholes emerge when countries do not accurately account for the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of imported products.

In fact, an estimated 25% of the global carbon footprint is embodied in imported goods. Buy Clean policies are one way to target this loophole by requiring publicly funded building projects to consider the emissions from building materials production.

While Buy Clean policies vary in terms of which materials and projects are eligible, all typically require disclosure of supply chain emissions through a mechanism called an environmental product declaration (EPD). Product manufacturers provide EPDs to communicate a product’s environmental and health impacts based on the results of an LCA. There are multiple internationally recognized standards (ISO 14025; ISO 14040; ISO 14044, ISO 21930) that govern how to perform the LCA and provide product category rules that give material-specific guidance.

EPDs can be thought of as “nutrition labels” showing a product’s environmental impact and are already used by certification systems such as LEED. There are a growing number of tools and resources for manufacturers, architects, contractors, and others across the building industry to measure and report embodied carbon. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), an initiative incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum, is a free database of construction EPDs that contractors can use to select lower-carbon products.

In addition to disclosure of EPDs, some Buy Clean policies also set GWP limits for eligible products and use incentives to support implementation. Here in Washington (see below), policy advocates and legislators have taken the additional step to integrate labor standards in the Buy Clean and Buy Fair Act. The “Buy Fair” provisions require firms to disclose their supplier code of conduct, if any, and basic working conditions at their facilities.

Buy Clean Originates in the Bay Area

The Buy Clean movement started in 2016 when a coalition led by the Blue Green Alliance, Sierra Club, United Steelworkers, and other businesses, labor groups, and environmental organizations pushed for a new law in California.

The coalition was spurred to action by the bidding process for a new portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which ended with a steel contract going to an overseas bidder. Blue Green Alliance analysis found that if the project had used steel from US manufacturers instead, it could have avoided an estimated 180,000 tons of carbon emissions.  

In 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the first Buy Clean policy in the country, the Buy Clean California Act. Since then, other state and local governments have introduced similar policies, including bills in Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.  

Washington Gets in the Game

During the 2021-2022 Washington legislative session, Representative Davina Duerr introduced the Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act. Along with Senator Derek Stanford’s companion bill, it would have required firms to submit EPDs and information about labor standards for materials used in constructing and renovating publicly funded buildings. Previously, Representative Beth Doglio had introduced two Buy Clean bills (HB 2412 and HB 2744). While neither bill passed, they helped fund a study by the Carbon Leadership Forum to review and evaluate embodied carbon policies.

The Substitute Bill of the most recent Buy Clean and Buy Fair policy (HB 1103) included these provisions:

  • Projects are eligible if they receive capital budget funds for buildings over 50,000 square feet or renovations costing more than 50% of the assessed value
  • Firms submit EPDs for 90% of the cost of covered materials: structural concrete, structural steel, reinforcing steel, and engineered wood
  • Firms submit any health certifications for the product; any steps taken to ensure high labor standards throughout the supply chain; and working conditions at production facilities
  • The Department of Commerce is authorized to provide financial assistance to small businesses to help with the costs of EPDs
  • The University of Washington College of Built Environments will create a public database for covered projects

Washington’s 2021-2023 operating budget funded the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum, along with the Department of Commerce, to create the database mentioned above and conduct a case study analysis.

Additionally, the 2021-2023 capital budget funded two Buy Clean and Buy Fair pilot projects through the University of Washington. Information on these projects is available in a progress report from December 2021.

Looking Ahead

Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington did not pass in the 2022 legislative session. However, there is optimism that movement at the federal level will catalyze wide-reaching transformation throughout the industrial sector in the United States. The implementation of Buy Clean, including key funding that has yet to pass in Build Back Better, remains to be seen.

If implemented well, a federal Buy Clean policy could pave the way for more state and local governments to follow with their own versions. There have also been recent international efforts to move toward industrial decarbonization.

In Washington, the passage of Buy Clean legislation in the 2023 session would be a critical step toward reducing embodied carbon emissions.

Ruby Moore-Bloom

Researcher
Ruby joined the Clean Energy Transition Institute in January 2022 as a Researcher. She is committed to working toward a clean energy future in the Northwest.
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