More than 30 years ago, the federal government began requiring all of its vehicles to include seat belts -- a move that helped prompt their inclusion in every American car.
Now the General Services Administration is trying to similarly motivate the private sector to adopt sustainable practices and products. GSA Senior Sustainability Officer Stephen Leeds recently compared the effort to flying to the moon; GSA, he said, has the "bold and audacious goal" to reach a zero environmental footprint and lead the nation to sustainability.
"We can try things," he told an audience of federal employees and sustainability experts at an event this week held by the National Capital Planning Commission. "If they don't work, we can fail fast. But if we fail, we need to fail fruitfully and fail forward so that we learn."
Titled "A Peek at Progress -- Federal Sustainability One Year Later," the NCPC event celebrated the one-year anniversary of President Obama's Executive Order 13514, which tasked the federal government with leading the sustainability effort. Since then, federal agencies have released extensive sustainability plans that pledge to decrease greenhouse gas emissions through steps such as infrastructure improvement and fuel efficiency.
Michelle Moore, the federal environmental executive tasked with orchestrating the effort, said the government hasn't missed a "single milestone" since Obama's order. But there's much more to come: The Office of Management and Budget will release its first "scorecards" on agencies' efforts come Jan. 1, shortly followed by the agencies submitting their first greenhouse gas emissions inventories on Jan. 31.
Meanwhile, working groups made up of agency officials are discussing a variety of sustainable topics, such as determining how to ensure that federal buildings are built in "green locations." Officials are also constantly studying how best to measure greenhouse gas emissions; earlier this month, the White House released the official guidance document with formulas and methods for measuring progress.
But GSA is perhaps better positioned than any other agency to jump-start sustainability throughout the federal government and the private sector. It handles 350 million square feet of buildings, operates 20,000 vehicles and buys more than 12 million products every year.
The agency is using about $5.8 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to make its vehicles and buildings more sustainable. All new buildings will be at least Gold certified by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, Leeds said. About $300 million is being used to make the agency's fleet more energy-efficient.
GSA is also testing efficiency improvements at a slew of government buildings. The agency's century-old headquarters in Washington, D.C., for example, is being renovated to include green roofs, all-new building systems and enclosed atriums. And the Mary E. Switzer Building -- which houses the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education -- will eventually use on-site clean power.
Such renovations won't just shrink the federal government's footprint but will allow for the testing of new technologies and materials, Leeds said.
"We're kind of standing on the beach, and the foam is getting on our toes to start the effort," he said. "We believe this is the challenge of our time. Sustainability is about security."