Sustainable Purchasing Guide

Every day, thousands of UBC staff, faculty members and students purchase goods and services that have economic, social and environmental impacts.

This guide has been designed to help staff, faculty members and students purchase sustainable goods and services. The guide supports the adoption of UBC’s Sustainability Plan and reflects a triple-bottom-line approach that balances best value, social equity and environmental protection. Collectively, UBC's purchasing choices can make a positive difference.

What is Sustainable Purchasing?

Sustainable purchasing evaluates goods and services in a broader context that goes beyond costs. Sustainable purchasing is about:

  • Maximizing value (quality, price, service, innovation) and minimizing the environmental and social impacts throughout a product’s entire life cycle
  • Buying goods and services that have reduced effects on human health, society and the environment, when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose

Think before you buy:

  • Is it necessary to buy this product or service?
  • Can we buy it used, borrow it, or share it with others, to save costs?
  • What is the product made of?
  • How was it made?
  • Where was it made and by whom?
  • How long will it last?
  • How will it be packaged and delivered?
  • Can we reduce the number of shipments?
  • Can we buy in bulk, to reduce packaging?
  • Can we use a shipping method that embraces sustainable practices?
  • How will it be reused, recycled or disposed? 
Why is Sustainable Purchasing Important?

Since 1997, when UBC became the first Canadian university to adopt a sustainable development policy, UBC has worked to integrate economic, social and environmental sustainability into university culture. We realize that all goods and services create social and environmental impacts throughout their lifecycles, from employment and local development to resource depletion and waste. We believe embracing sustainable purchasing in our everyday lives will advance sustainable development, and the benefits will extend beyond UBC and the local community.

Reducing waste, fostering a culture of reuse, and making sustainable purchasing decisions are also key components of helping to achieve UBC's Zero Waste Action Plan targets and 20-Year Sustainability Strategy goals. Sustainable purchasing can also be a wise business decision. As a public institution, UBC is mandated by the provincial government to pay carbon offsets on emissions caused by products and services UBC consumes. By reducing, reusing and purchasing sustainably, we can conserve resources and reduce UBC’s carbon offset costs.

Benefits of Sustainable Purchasing


  • Stimulates a robust local economy by supporting local suppliers
  • Reduces operation, transportation, maintenance, replacement and waste disposal costs
  • Fosters innovation, as more organizations demand and seek sustainable alternatives


  • Supports international labour standards and the ethical treatment of workers worldwide
  • Promotes worker safety, health and wellness
  • Supports suppliers who promote diversity and accessibility in the workplace
  • Encourages the development of local social enterprises 


  • Supports energy conservation, waste reduction, and water conservation
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reduces pollutants and toxins released into the atmosphere, soil and water
  • Supports products and services that respect biodiversity 
What is UBC Doing to Advance Sustainable Purchasing?

UBC Supplier Code of Conduct

  • The Financial Operations Supplier Code of Conduct (SCC) sets the ethical performance expectations for suppliers of goods, services or equipment. The goal of the SCC is to ensure safe and healthy workplaces for the people who manufacture products for UBC, where human and civil rights conditions are in compliance with the core labour conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Supplier Engagement

  • UBC collaborates with and encourages suppliers to implement sustainable procurement throughout their supply chain, from sourcing to disposal.
  • Major suppliers responding to a UBC request for proposal (RFP) must demonstrate their organizational sustainability leadership in energy and emissions, materials and waste, water, and supplier engagement. These areas may account for 10 per cent (or more) of an RFP's evaluation criteria. UBC is also conducting a pilot project to evaluate the sustainable practices of major suppliers after they are awarded a contract.

Fair Trade

  • In 2011, UBC was designated as the first Fair Trade Campus in Canada. The designation from Fairtrade Canada recognizes UBC for its national leadership in Fairtrade purchasing. UBC buys coffee, tea, chocolate and tropical fruit from producers that guarantee high social, environmental and pay standards for farmers and workers.

Reuse and Recycling Programs

  • Reuse-it! UBC facilitates the reuse of goods between campus departments, to reduce the amount of reusable items entering the waste stream and provide alternative to buying new. UBC's Recyclepedia provides an A-Z listing of what can be recycled or composted on campus, and how to recycle items.
Total Cost of Ownership: Life Cycle Approach

When purchasing goods, it is important to consider more than an item's upfront cost. Although upfront costs may initially appear to be high, sustainable purchases often cost less than conventional products when the total cost of ownership is taken into account. Sustainable purchasers assess the costs associated with an item over its lifetime, including its disposal, operation, transportation, packaging, manufacturing, and design.

The total cost of sustainable products may be less than conventional products in many instances, when you consider long-term cost savings (i.e. less energy to operate a more efficient product) and cost avoidance (i.e. reduced waste disposal costs). Combined with strategies to reduce product use (i.e. printing less paper), green products can cost the same as, or less than status quo.

You can evaluate your purchasing decision by creating a chart like the one below:

  Inkjet Printer Laser Printer
Initial/Capital Cost $69 $400
Cost of Cartridge $19/cartridge $115/cartridge
Amount of pages yielded per cartridge 170 pages 8,000 pages
  • Example: 50 sheets of paper used per day, 300 days a year
15,000 sheets 15,000 sheets
Additional Cartridge Costs $1,677/year $216/year
Extra Staff Time Ordering & Replacing Cartridges (10 min/cartridge @ $20/hr) $295/year $6/year
Total Cost in First Year of Ownership $2,051 $622

 Source: Small Business Computing

Labels and Certifications

An easy way to find sustainable alternatives is to look for green product labels and third party certifications when purchasing. These labels are symbols that indicate a product has been certified to a specific environmental standard. Product certification labels can also help consumers to combat “greenwashing”.

Refer to this list of some key labels and certifications when making purchasing decisions.

The UBC Sustainable Purchasing Guide is a collaborative initiative by UBC Supply Management and UBC Sustainability and Engineering. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to contact us. To learn more about sustainability initiatives at UBC, visit