Interview: Johanna Kertesz, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

This summer, SPLC is running a Thought Leadership Interview Series in order to recognize and learn from some of the individuals involved in our work.

Today we’re pleased to share our interview with Johanna Kertesz; Environmental Scientist at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Johanna currently coordinates the State of Minnesota’s Sustainable Purchasing Program, assisting the state with making purchases that demonstrate the highest level of environmental, social, and economic responsibility.

We hope you enjoy reading about her story and work on sustainable purchasing.

Johanna’s Story

How did your passion for sustainable purchasing develop?

  • When I moved to Minnesota in 2006, I had recently completed my Masters in Conservation Biology and all of my previous professional work experience was in the field of marine ecology. Since I knew I wouldn’t find any marine jobs in MN, I applied for every environmental job I could find. After 1.5 years with an environmental consulting firm, I was hired at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to work on environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP). I had no idea what that position would entail but I was passionate about protecting and improving the environment and I was excited to learn more. When I started my job in 2008, our EPP work was very opportunistic in nature and I wouldn’t say I fully realized the potential it could have. I think my passion for the work really grew when the EPA released its sustainable materials management vision several years ago – I remember seeing a pie chart that demonstrated how impactful procurement in terms of greenhouse gas emissions was and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. In that moment, I understood how important this work was and that we really needed to seize the opportunity to grow it. I also became more passionate about this work when we started thinking of things more holistically – adding in the social component has made this work even more meaningful to me.

How did your organization make sustainability in procurement a priority?

  • My organization has had some form of an EPP program in place since the 1990s. Back then, the work focused on closing the loop for recycling programs – MN has always been a leader in recycling and therefore, also led the way in promoting the purchase of recycled content products. When I was hired in 2008, my position was 100% focused on EPP. However, less than a year into the job, I got pulled into more traditional solid waste projects. I had to work hard to retain the important EPP efforts and advocate for the program, making sure to communicate the environmental benefits whenever possible. The stars aligned in 2013 to make sustainable procurement a priority for our State – the SPLC emerged, highlighting the importance of all 3 aspects of sustainability which resonated with the Department of Administration (Admin), our partner agency. Leadership changes at Admin allowed for some new perspectives to emerge. We also completed an EPA grant that provided us with a tool to prioritize our efforts on high impact areas. Finally, we had a Governor who supported sustainability. This allowed us to formally commit to our new, improved sustainable procurement program.

Achievements and Challenges

Thinking about your work related to sustainable purchasing, what is something you’re personally proud of having accomplished?

  • Institutionalizing the sustainable procurement program. While the informal program yielded some good results, there was never a guarantee that the work would happen. We also weren’t getting the bang for our buck. With our renewed commitment to a balanced program, I feel confident that we will be focusing on the right things and achieving the outcomes we are seeking.

Making the Business Case

How have you communicated the business case for sustainable purchasing within your organization?

  • In many ways! We’ve talked about how sustainable procurement meets the values of our state and therefore, should be a part of regular business. We’ve also talked about the cost benefits of buying certain products (or NOT buying products at all).

How do you motivate staff/ buyers within your organization to prioritize sustainability when procuring goods/services?

  • Previously, we’ve done this on a case by case basis – e.g. we need to buy recycled content paper because it’s state law, and we should buy higher recycled content because of all the environmental benefits associated with it. But now, with our new program commitment, the motivation is that we have shared priorities. We are starting to see sustainability as a State of Minnesota priority, not just an MPCA priority.

The Big Picture

What are some emerging trends in sustainable purchasing and how might these affect the future of the sustainable purchasing movement?

  • Developing the sustainability capacity of SMEs is a trend that I am particularly excited about. I don’t see how we can actually grow sustainable purchasing without doing some capacity building so I see this as THE future of sustainable purchasing.

What do you value about the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council?

  • Oh goodness, everything! I’ve told Sam that I’m an SPLC evangelist – I really feel indebted to the organization for helping the State of Minnesota’s program grow. The SPLC staff and the SPLC community of practice have inspired us to commit more fully to this work and to improve our program. I appreciate the conversations we have in the community platform and during committee calls. I’ve relied on the Guidance during our program changes. And I think BENCHMARK is going to help us identify ways to grow and improve our program. So, in short – I value the staff, the community of practice, and the tools that SPLC houses. To me, SPLC feels like a trade association for those of us involved in sustainable purchasing – it feels nice to have a “home”.

What aspirations do you have for the sustainable purchasing movement and the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council?

  • That sustainable purchasing gets easier. That we have to advocate for sustainability in procurement less, and have more time to get the work done. That membership to the SPLC is a no-brainer for public sector and private sector alike because no one wants to be left behind and because most organizations have realized that sustainable procurement is becoming business as usual.


In the spirit of getting to know each other better, can you share one interesting thing about yourself that others in the SPLC community may not know?

  • I am a die-hard UNC Tar Heel basketball fan, and can have a hard time being around Duke fans during March Madness.

Thank you to Johanna for her thoughts.

The State of Minnesota’s Sustainable Purchasing Practices and Approaches for Increasing Diversity and Inclusion both received Outstanding Case Study Leadership Awards in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Non-members can read an overview of the case studies and SPLC members can access the full case study.

Interested in reading more from the Q&A Series? Follow this link.

Would you like to connect with more experts like Johanna? Learn more about SPLC Membership.

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