Campus & Community

Greening the meaning of bottom line

3 min read

Veteran staffer helps give Harvard buying power a sustainable twist

Truckloads of paper, toner, ink, and office furniture. Last year, Harvard spent almost $35 million on the high-volume, low-cost supplies that are the little-celebrated grist of office life.

But even the humblest purchases come with an environmental impact, said Christine S. Benoit, a contract manager at Harvard’s Strategic Procurement Office. Paper requires trees, toner involves expensive chemistry, and even pens get shipped from A to B at the cost of fuel and exhaust.

To reduce that environmental impact, Benoit believes in ordering just enough supplies, and from the right places. That includes ordering from manufacturers who support conservation, use renewable energy, and favor the University’s preferred vendors.

She and other procurement experts in her office are also looking for ways to put Harvard’s sustainability concerns into purchasing contracts, bidding proposals, and policy.

Keeping the bottom line green can keep it in the black. “People are interested in saving money,” said the five-year Harvard veteran. “Saving money and the environment go hand in hand.”

Benoit wasn’t always a student of market-share spreadsheets and industry trends in the office supplies trade. At Rutgers University, she majored in physics, and in 2004 signed on as a faculty assistant at Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences on Oxford Street.

Benoit learned a lot about geophysics, geochemistry, and the effects of climate dynamics. “They loved to teach,” she said of the department’s professors, “no matter who you are.”

While on Oxford Street, Benoit also practiced acts of small-scale sustainability as a member of one of the University’s first “green office” teams. These conservation-minded workers try to minimize the energy and materials their workplaces consume.

In 2006, Benoit became office manager at the Green Campus Initiative (now Harvard’s greatly expanded Office for Sustainability). She helped administer a $12 million Green Campus Loan Fund which to date has bankrolled 153 projects and generated  $4 million in conservation savings.

In 2008, Benoit joined the strategic procurement office, where eight staffers investigate the environmental impact of buying science supplies, paper, furniture, cleaning products, and building systems. They also look into the impact of delivery services, travel, and printing.

That way, said Benoit, “people don’t have to wish and hope and wonder” where their everyday supplies come from.

Any advice on sustainable purchasing people can take home? With a laugh, she has a fast answer: “Don’t buy anything.” But if you have to buy something, said Benoit, consider an item’s life cycle – that is, not only what it costs to buy, but what that item costs to install, operate, maintain, and dispose of. Even better, she said, see if you can buy the item used.

Benoit spends a lot of her spare time hitting the books, and is halfway to a master’s degree in information management at the Harvard Extension School.

The course work helps with her latest Harvard job, said Benoit – a work setting where in sustainability terms “I can really dig my heels in and get some work done.”