Background Information and Resources

The largest purchaser in the world, the U.S. government buys everything from lighting to cleaning products. [1] The federal government’s footprint includes the environmental and public health impact of its 360,000 buildings, 650,000 fleet vehicles, and $400 billion spent annually on products and services.

Several legal authorities recognize the significance of this spending – and its potential environmental impacts – by requiring or encouraging procurement officers to take environmental considerations into account when purchasing goods and services on behalf of the federal government. [2] On March 19, 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order titled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade” that outlines a number of additional measures to make the federal government’s operations more sustainable, efficient and energy-secure while saving taxpayer dollars. Specifically, the Executive Order directs federal agencies to “promote sustainable acquisition and procurement by purchasing environmentally preferable products or services that: meet or exceed specifications, standards, or labels recommended by EPA that have been determined to assist agencies in meeting their needs and further advance sustainable procurement goals of this order; or meet environmental performance criteria developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies consistent with section 12(d) of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995  (NTTAA) (Pub. L. 104-113) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-119.” [3]

In passing the NTTAA, Congress required federal agencies to “use technical standards that are developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies, using such technical standards as a means to carry out policy objectives or activities,” except when an agency determines that such use “is inconsistent with applicable law or otherwise impractical.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-119 (titled “Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and in Conformity Assessment Activities”) reaffirms federal agency use of non-governmental standards in procurement rather than government-specific standards.

EPA’s role in supporting how the federal government meets sustainable procurement mandates is also well established: the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 directed EPA to identify opportunities to use federal procurement to encourage source reduction and Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) section 23.703 states that agencies must “Maximize the utilization of environmentally preferable products and services (based on EPA-issued guidance).”

Consistent with the above, the EPA has drafted proposed Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement. These guidelines are intended to make it easier for federal purchasers to meet the statutory and executive order sustainable acquisition requirement while influencing the marketplace to make safer and greener products available to all purchasers. [4]

Why Are the Guidelines Needed?

Many federal agencies are buying products and/or services with federal ecolabels that identify products/services meeting strict federal performance standards for energy efficiency, the environment and public health; however, in cases where federal standards and ecolabels do not exist or may not fully address all relevant environmental or publich health “hotspots,” the challenge for federal buyers is sorting through hundreds of non-governmental standards and ecolabels that claim to validate environmental and public health benefits. The draft guidelines are intended to help federal buyers select those private ecolabels and standards that are environmentally preferable and appropriate for federal procurement.

Over the last decade, EPA has received numerous requests from federal and non-federal stakeholders to help identify appropriate private sector standards and ecolabels for environmentally preferable purchasing. Non-governmental environmental standards and ecolabels are already being used to promote sustainable purchasing throughout the federal government and the private sector. However, the growth of product environmental standards and ecolabels (more than 400 worldwide), and uncertainty among the purchasing workforce on how to determine which standards and ecolabels are effective and appropriate for a given procurement, have limited their use in sustainable acquisition. EPA’s decision to develop the guidelines is in large part a response to these challenges. Moreover, EPA considers the guidelines and their implementation a cost-effective approach for federal sustainable acquisition. In addition, we expect that this effort can also provide some clarity and consistency, and thus cost-savings, for suppliers that wish to sell to the government.

How Were the Guidelines Developed?

The draft guidelines were developed by EPA, the General Services Administration (GSA), and other federal agencies following several listening sessions with a wide range of stakeholders. The sessions focused on how the federal government can be more sustainable in its purchasing and how federal purchasers can best meet the numerous federal requirements for the procurement of sustainable and environmentally preferable products and services. EPA heard some common themes from suppliers, manufacturers, environmental organizations, multi-stakeholder bodies, regulatory partners, purchasers, and others. Key points included: (1) The desire for greater clarity in the marketplace regarding standards and ecolabels and (2) the opportunity to leverage the federal government’s purchasing power toward sustainability goals.

Beginning in early 2011, EPA, GSA, and other federal agencies came together to identify existing environmental purchasing requirements for federal buyers and existing guidelines and protocols for standards and ecolabels. An interagency group developed an initial set of draft guidelines, and, with contractor support, tested the feasibility and appropriateness of the draft guidelines. This included conducting a survey of a subset of government and non-governmental environmental performance standards and ecolabel developers. Based on the results of the study and external stakeholder input from more than 30 listening sessions and discussions, EPA took the lead in completing the draft guidelines by integrating (1) accepted protocols for standards development, conformity assessment, and ecolabel program management consistent with U.S. government policy, and (2) criteria that would support the claim of environmental preferability.

What’s in the Guidelines?

The draft guidelines include four sections:

  • Guidelines for the Process for Developing Standards refer to the procedures used to develop, maintain, and update an environmental standard.
  • Guidelines for the Environmental Effectiveness of the Standards refer to the criteria in the environmental standard or ecolabel that support the claim of environmental preferability.
  • Guidelines for Conformity Assessment refer to the procedures and practices by which products are assessed for conformity to the requirements specified by standards and ecolabeling programs.
  • Guidelines for Management of Ecolabeling Programs refer to the organizational and management practices of an ecolabeling program.

What Is the Status of the Draft Guidelines?

On November 20, 2013, EPA released the draft guidelines and opened a public comment period. When the comment period closed on April 25, 2014, more than 75 individuals and organizations had offered input on the proposed draft guidelines. Public comments confirmed that a set of guidelines to assess standards and ecolabels were needed and that federal agencies should use private sector product environmental standards and ecolabels, to meet the goals of (then) EO 13514, as well as the sustainable acquisition requirements of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), consistent with the NTTAA and OMB Circular A-119.

EPA has responded to public comments and released a new version of the second section of the guidelines, Guidelines for the Environmental Effectiveness of the Standards. The majority of public comments supported EPA undertaking—with key external entity and stakeholder participation—additional work to further refine the draft guidelines and test a potential approach to assessing standards and ecolabels.

What Are the Next Steps for the Draft Guidelines?

For the next phase of work, EPA has contracted with RESOLVE, an independent non-profit organization specializing in multi-stakeholder consensus building, to convene an expert and balanced group of stakeholders who will pilot the guidelines in three product categories in the building sector (paints/coatings/removers, flooring and furniture) and explore potential future application in the services sector.


[1] U.S. EPA, “EPA Proposes New Guidelines for Greener Federal Purchases” (November 20, 2013),!OpenDocument.

[2] Kate M. Manuel and L. Elaine Halchin, “Environmental Considerations in Federal Procurement:  An Overview of the Legal Authorities and Their Implementation,” Congressional Research Service (January 7, 2013), 1.

[3] The White House Office, “Executive Order – Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade” (March 19, 2015).

[4] U.S. EPA, “EPA Proposes New Guidelines.”


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