Interview: Karen Hamilton, King County

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 Karen Hamilton; Environmental Purchasing Program Manager for King County Procurement and Payables in Seattle, WA. Under her leadership, King County agencies are institutionalizing the purchase of many environmentally preferable products and realizing fiscal, environmental and social benefits in the process. Her program has won numerous awards and has been presented as a model for other jurisdictions in various publications and at national and international conferences.

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

Karen’s Story

How did your passion for sustainable purchasing develop?

  • I grew up in Washington State and have always had an appreciation for its natural beauty and have been aware of the impact of humans on the environment. And then in college, I had planned on being a business major, but was encouraged to also take an environmental studies class my first year. It opened my eyes to the world around me and I loved it. I then was able to leverage both business and the environment into my major. I did an internship with the State helping businesses with recycled product market development and then went to work for King County to help buy recycled products which has led to sustainable purchasing.

How did your organization make sustainability in procurement a priority?

  • King County adopted a recycled product procurement policy in 1989 in response to overburdened landfills and the need to create markets for newly collected recyclables. After implementation it became clear that we could apply similar strategies to increase the purchase of other environmentally preferable products and services, such as more durable, less toxic and resource efficient ones. The program has developed over time to include additional social, fiscal and environmental attributes in procurement and has become embedded in the county’s strategic climate action plan and other policies.

Achievements and Challenges

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

  • The first big win was the purchase of re-refined motor oil for our Metro Transit bus fleet. The county had been using re-refined oil in its cars and trucks for a few years, but I was told that it wasn’t possible for this fleet of 1,200 coaches. By demonstrating that the quality of the product was equal to virgin oil including the same warranties and educating the end users, they adopted the purchase of re-refined oil. Now they are big proponents of innovation having purchased many other sustainable products and owning and operating the largest fleet of hybrid buses including buying battery powered buses.

What is a significant challenge that your organization has faced, related to sustainable purchasing?

  • Institutionalizing the purchase of sustainable products and services and quantifying their benefits is challenging. There are different priorities and business needs across the county and it’s not always easy to evaluate the benefits of one product over another. It can also be challenging to affect change and sustain it in all levels of the organization.

Making the Business Case

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

  • King County has an established environmentally preferable purchasing policy and program that has documented cost savings of sustainable products and services and other successes of implementation. Also, purchasing strategies and metrics have been embedded into the county’s Strategic Climate Action Plan in every goal area.

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

  • We educate staff on the policy and goals, highlighting products that save money and those that have the largest environmental benefits, as well as celebrating wins. We also try to make it as easy as possible by putting sustainable products on contracts and having agencies pilot test products. And, we tie all of this to the larger county goals. 

The Big Picture

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

  • Requiring more from our suppliers to be sustainable and prove that the whole supply chain is too. This is especially ubiquitous in the public sector because we haven’t done as much to hold them to a higher standard as we’ve focused more on products.

What do you value about the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council?

  • The camaraderie and community of the members. It’s comforting to know that there are similar organizations that can help us work through some of these issues together.

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

  • An integrated approach for institutional purchasing that can be replicated across jurisdictions and businesses (best practices, policies, etc.) and that the SPLC can be the leader in helping organizations achieve that goal.


Is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to share about?

  • This field is always evolving and it’s great to have a community to participate in. When we started, we were trying to do one thing: buy recycled products. Now, we have sophisticated models for buying sustainable products from sustainable companies and really evaluating the life-cycle impacts of the products and services that we buy. It’s not a completely transparent or integrated process yet, but we are making great strides to institutionalize this work.

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?

  • In 2009, I spoke at the International Green Purchasing Network conference in Suwon, South Korea about King County’s work on reducing the climate impacts of public purchasing and Al Gore was the keynote speaker. It was my first exposure to other international green public procurement programs and my first trip overseas.

A huge thank you to Karen for her insight. 

King County has submitted numerous Outstanding Case Studies to SPLC’s Leadership Awards program over the last three years, all of which can be explored in our Case Study Library. 2017 Outstanding Case Study Award Winners include King Country’s Long-term Renewable Electricity Purchase and Solar Security Lighting for Metro Bus Shelters. Non-members can read the abstract for each case study, SPLC members have access to the full document.

Our archive of Thought Leadership Q&A Series Blog Posts can be accessed here.

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

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