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Johnson Says GSA is Helping to Advance Low Carbon Economy

As prepared for delivery


Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
Global Environment Management Initiative Conference
Washington, DC
October 27, 2010 


Thank you, Moe [Bechard, GEMI Chair], for that introduction. I’m delighted to be here with you all today. I’m here to speak about the role that the U.S. government, and GSA in particular, has in propelling us toward a low-carbon economy. 

GSA is the nation's landlord, and we are one of the premier procurement levers in the federal government. Let me give you a sense of that size.

The federal government occupies 500,000 buildings; we operate more than 600,000 vehicles; and we purchase $500 billion in goods, systems, and services each year.

GSA plays a large role in this. There are other big entities, like the Department of Defense, the Postal Service, and the prison systems. But GSA handles about 350 million square feet of buildings; we operate about a third of that vehicle fleet; and we oversee a vast amount of the flow of goods and services through our schedules program, our credit cards, our travel services, and the like. The river of consumption that we touch is roughly $95 billion each year.

GSA is unique in its ability to make – and to move – markets. We qualify industry partners for federal contracting, we buy in bulk, and we have a history of changing markets on a national level. It was only after the federal government mandated seatbelts in all government-purchased cars that seatbelts became standard nationwide. 

So we have influence on the market. The question is whether or not we shift the marketplace intentionally or whether we do it in spite of ourselves. I prefer to do it intentionally and to leverage our size and capacity to make and move the right markets. 

As an agency, GSA has been stimulated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to invest in innovation and support new markets for green and sustainable buildings and products.

President Barack Obama is a pleasure to work for and is one of the best executives I’ve seen, for a number of reasons. First, he sees the long view and is able to anticipate the long-term benefits of investments today. Second, he expects rigorous analytics and evidence-based leadership. Third, he sees GSA as a strategic asset, and he has put us front and center on a number of his top priorities, including open government, information technology modernization, acquisition modernization, federal real property disposal, and, of course, sustainability.

This administration understands that a low-carbon economy is absolutely essential to the future prosperity of our world and our economy. Green-collar jobs will be a pillar of the 21st century economy, and the president knows that there’s no time to waste in moving toward a sustainable economy. 

I quote him: “Countries on every corner of this Earth now recognize that energy supplies are growing scarcer, energy demands are growing larger, and rising energy use imperils the planet we will leave to future generations. And that's why the world is now engaged in a peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century. … The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation.”

Ultimately, the challenge of achieving a low-environmental impact economy cuts to the very essence of our security. Continuing with our environmental status quo threatens our economy, it poses grave challenges to our standing in the world, it limits our strategic flexibility, and it diminishes the generational security we hope to pass on to our children. 

In this field, GSA is taking a leadership position. GSA is like a membrane, if you will. On one side, you have industry; and on the other side, you have government, and we're right in the middle. It needs to be porous. It needs to be healthy. It cannot be brittle. It cannot be dry. It needs to encourage conversation, hence the openness, and it needs to be vital and exactly centered between the two. This is, of course, always a balance. It's always a balance, and we take this very seriously.

We can make, we can interpret, and we can share market messages. We can create coalitions and affinity groups across that membrane. GSA plays an important facilitation role between industry and government.

Importantly, GSA is already in this game. Since the 1970s when our country faced an energy crisis, GSA has been committed to reducing the energy reliance of our building portfolio. Today, federal buildings operate on average at 22 percent less energy than their private-sector counterparts.

Sustainability makes sense. It makes good economic, policy, environmental, and business sense. And, on top of all that, it makes for good government. How? Because sustainability is, fundamentally, about reducing and eliminating waste. It wrings inefficiencies out of the system, it tightens and streamlines our processes, and it forces us to think in new and creative ways about our operations. Low-carbon and no-carbon goals inspire our creativity and power our confidence in our future. 

At GSA, we are pulling sustainability through government, our operations, and our supply chain. To do this, we have declared a goal of achieving a zero environmental footprint. No kidding.

This is about sustainability writ large, and we’re taking it seriously. We’re pulling sustainability across our buildings inventory, across our design and disposal processes, across our operations, and across our supply – and our value – chain. Why are we taking the lead on this? Because if we don’t, the government can’t. GSA is the pull mechanism for the government; as the catalyst for change, our leadership will help energize and clear the path for the rest of government.

It is not an exaggeration to say that achieving a zero environmental footprint is our moonshot. What do I mean by that? NASA had no idea when, in 1961, an ambitious young president announced that we would send a man to the moon and bring him safely home. Yet, that’s what we did. The goal of reaching the moon – and returning home – galvanized NASA and required new levels of innovation, creativity, and discovery. A zero environmental footprint goal is similar, and we can’t afford not to pursue it.

ZEF is also similar to the NASA moonshot in that we don’t know how we’re going to get there, but we do know that we must get there. The goal of a zero environmental footprint has aligned our agency and focused all of our service lines on a common purpose. Thanks to more than $5 billion in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we’re pursuing smart investments in new, green technology and design in order to modernize and update more than 260 federal buildings. We’re also committed to having our new construction projects meet a minimum certification of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold. While this standard will be used as a measurement tool rather than as a design rubric, it demonstrates our resolve to make sustainability an indelible piece of our design process. 

As the premier government IT solutions provider, GSA is also pursuing cloud-based computing, data center consolidation, and improved telework technology to ease the transition into mobile – and low-commute – work for federal employees. 

And, because of the important position we have been given within Executive Order 13514, we now have the opportunity and responsibility to lead the government in several other environmentally important areas, including green acquisition. We’re doing this in three main ways. 

First, we’re strengthening our current, ongoing activities to provide increased access to, and greater support for, environmentally preferable products on our schedules.

Second, we’re supporting nodes of innovation that already exist within GSA, such as our Integrated Workplace Acquisition Center. This office operates under requirements that stipulate incorporation of recycled material into office furniture. But staff has gone beyond the requirements and are now exploring the use of formaldehyde, bio-matter inclusion, and the effect of adhesives on the environment when the products are disposed of. This shows the linkage we see between design and disposal. 

Third, GSA is exploring ways to build greenhouse gas awareness, measurement, and, ultimately, reduction into our supply chain. We’re doing this in a number of ways, but before I get into the methods, it’s important to note that there is a strong business case for GHG disclosure.

A recent publication from Carnegie Mellon reports that “Companies are recognizing that supply chain GHG emissions account for 20 percent to 75 percent of an organization’s total GHG emissions. ...” If those numbers are accurate, then a reduction in supply chain emissions could have a powerful impact on the overall GHG emissions of industry. By measuring, tracking, and disclosing GHG emissions, companies will be able to identify areas of waste and inefficiency. 

So we’re going to be working with companies to help pull sustainability through their supply chains in a phased and incentivized way. We won’t do this too fast, and we don’t intend to make any sudden or rash moves that jolt the marketplace. Rather, we are pursuing the goal of a green supply chain deliberately and carefully. And, we’re actively engaging private sector partners in this process, as well. 

We have identified 200 of our largest suppliers by revenue who have participated in the Carbon Disclosure Project registry. Since they have already participated in GHG monitoring within their own supply chains, we are able to learn valuable lessons from them about the impact that measurement will have on their operations and on their bottom lines. 

But we want to be sure that we are including the engines of America’s economy: small businesses. We understand that it can be tough as a small-business owner to get the information on your supply chain GHG emissions. That’s why we’re developing mentoring programs and, along with our partners at Environmental Protection Agency, we’re running a pilot study of 60 small businesses to identify strategies and savings resulting from measurement and tracking. By working with these 60 small businesses, including a tree removal company, a HVAC installation firm, and a small construction company, we are ensuring the small businesses are able to compete on a level playing field along with larger firms.

And, we’re continuing to monitor the market to be aware of protocols about GHG integration into products and operations. We’re interested in seeing how our industry partners like Wal-Mart, HP, UPS, or 3M act – and react – toward GHG reporting guidelines and sustainability priorities. 

We believe in the power of transparency and collaboration. We’re joining you – NGOs, academia, industry, and government – and we must learn together. We have a tremendous amount of collaborating that needs to happen.

I think of this moment as if we were standing on a beach. Right now, we're at that place where the foam is just about reaching our toes. We have a long way to get into this ocean. This kind of work is getting our feet a little bit wet, and that’s great. But we do have a long way to go, and collaboration is of the essence. We need to move quickly, and we need to manage risk. GSA has huge shoulders, and we can shoulder a lot of risk around innovation. We can fail a little bit if we fail fast and fail forward and fail fruitfully. And if we can tell that story so the media can hear it, well, it benefits us all because others can learn.

All of this collaboration can also help us stay committed because linking arms is important in this process. We believe in transparency, and that means that we believe in disclosing a great amount. We will commit to actively using the knowledge that surfaces as we move forward, and we hope that you will, too. Perhaps most importantly, we need to hold each other accountable, keep the conversation honest, and share the best ideas in respectful and productive conversations.

In short, I want to let you know that government is moving. We are eager to be a part of this huge endeavor. We understand our position better than ever. We are committed to making a difference, and we won't disappoint you.

Thank you very, very much.