Duluth Identifies Levers for Healthier City Purchasing

The Mayors Innovation Project, in partnership with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, provided grants to cities across the country to work towards better health outcomes for children. We are excited to share the story of one of our grant recipients, Duluth, MN.


As Duluth, MN’s Mayor Emily Larson says, the first step on the path towards a healthier city is to “get our own house in order.” As part of getting their house in order, Mayor Larson and city sustainability staff set about to identify effective sustainability purchasing policies and identify the biggest levers that the city can have in influencing community purchasing choices.

What is Environmentally Preferable Purchasing?

First, staff got up to speed on environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP). EPP is the procurement of goods and services that have a reduced impact on human health and the environment compared to competing products serving the same purpose.

Luckily, there are many fantastic resources for cities available: the Responsible Purchasing Network’s Sustainable Procurement Playbook for Cities, the Ecology Center’s Sustainable Procurement Policies Roadmap, National League of Cities’ Steps for Greening Purchasing Guidelines, and the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC).

Duluth staff joined a peer-networking group of city procurement professionals curated by the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council. In addition to peer support, SPLC shared active online topic and discussion groups, coaching support, available workshops, purchasing guidance by categories, webinar recordings and case studies.

They city’s relationship with SPLC proved to be very beneficial within this sustainable purchasing project. They were supportive and overall a great resource to use for EPP beginners.

Identifying Interest and Needs

The second step was to interview Duluth’s purchasing agent and city department heads. We focused on several departments, including property and facility management; public works and utilities; fleet; parks and libraries; and street maintenance. The interview process was streamlined with the use of easy to update data sheets, and standard questions like:

  • Are there any examples of sustainability within your department that you can highlight?
  • Have you noticed any staff with interest in sustainable purchasing?
  • What decisions go into your department’s purchasing process?
  • Do you have any ideas related to environmentally preferable purchasing?
  • If money wasn’t a thing, how would you bring sustainable purchasing into your day to day?
  • If money was available (specifically $3000), what would you do?

Who won the $3,000?

The portion of Duluth’s grant funding from Bright Cities and the Mayors Innovation Project was used to kick-start and incentivize more sustainable purchasing by offsetting costs to demonstrate a new product, chemical, or process for Departments.

And how? All interviews were scored per a standard criteria, and the department with the highest score received the $3000 award. Though this may seem like a small pot of funds, offsetting even a small portion of any new pilot purchase was an effective incentive.

Our Public Works—Street Maintenance crew was awarded the funding for a green asphalt release agent trial for 2022 construction. This new agent will be used as a greener alternative to clean-off equipment, vehicles, and more during asphalt placement projects.

Compared to previous release agents, this new alternative will be cleaner and safer for the environment, and most importantly, for the street maintenance crews themselves.

A Ripple Effect Across Sectors

Other departments, even without pilot funding, are making healthier purchases too. The Parks and Libraries Department is moving forward with electric lawnmowers and weed whips. Park maintenance staff, Greg Hanson, appreciates how quiet the new equipment is compared to analogous gas-powered equipment. “It makes it easier for people to enjoy our parks, without having to listen to loud equipment operating nearby,” said Greg. “Plus, the equipment doesn’t have any air quality impacts!”

Another department, Property and Facilities Management (PFM), is showing leadership by developing a new set of standards for building renovation or construction, called Owner Performance Requirements (OPR). The newly developed OPR will help the city reduce energy use, save water, select longer lasting, greener materials, and provide healthier indoor air quality. The PFM group has also worked to consolidate and simplify cleaning chemical purchases, for both safety and sustainability.

Moving forward, the sustainability and purchasing departments will review and share final recommendations of our project with the Mayor’s Leadership Team this spring. Already, through collecting feedback and data, piloting new ideas and products, and building relationships, this project is already making a difference in Duluth!

Curious to learn more? Contact Hannah Zahn-Hess, Duluth’s Sustainability Assistant, at hzahnhess@duluthmn.gov.