Buy Clean Reduces Emissions, Empowers Unions and is Popular

By Julian Brave NoiseCat (@jnoisecat) and Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee )

The Green New Deal aims to leverage the full resources of the United States economy—public and private—to take on twin crises of climate and inequality. While taxation, regulation and investment (and the occasional cow fart and mythical train to Hawaii) have featured prominently in most debates about the Green New Deal, commentators and wonks have largely overlooked one of the less sexy but more impactful policy levers: government purchasing power. We at Data for Progress believe that a key part of any Green New Deal—and one that we could begin implementing in many states right now—is the “Buy Clean” standard.

Buy Clean is a procurement policy that would require the government to take climate pollution and labor protection into account when determining which corporations win government contracts. The federal government is the world’s single largest customer—and the dollars it spends are yours as a taxpayer. We can leverage the billions of dollars spent every year on federal contracts to incentivize clean and green investments while empowering the unions and workers that brought us the weekend and the welfare state. And while the legislative path to a Green New Deal runs through a tough senate map and 60-vote filibuster, we can start pushing for Buy Clean right now.

As an emissions policy, Buy Clean is especially powerful because it can help federal and state governments address pollution upstream in the supply chain and beyond their own borders—helping close what is effectively a loophole wherein products like steel, cement and clothing are produced in countries with weak regulations and consumed by nations like ours with stronger environmental standards.

This is a winning proposition for proponents of more Rooseveltian approaches to climate legislation. It is actionable, it reduces emissions, it reinvests in clean industry, it can empower unions—and it can build new coalitions. In 2017, a coalition of labor and environmental groups in California led the charge for the nation’s first Buy Clean program. This is, effectively, a test-case for a similar federal policy under the banner of a Green New Deal.

And in new polling, Data for Progress finds that Buy Clean is popular.

In our survey, we asked respondents to consider what is known as a “Buy Clean” law. Specifically, we asked:

Would you [support or oppose] a "Buy Clean" law, requiring the government to prioritize purchasing and spending to go towards clean manufacturing firms with good paying union jobs?

The wording of this item went through several iterations. We sought to include components of the law currently being considered, namely an obligation for the government to prioritize purchases from facilities that would be rated as “clean manufacturing” plants, and to consider a “union jobs” requirement. Typically, the use of phrasing that includes “requirements” and “unions” are associated with lower levels of support than similar policies without such attributes. Nonetheless, fully 49 percent of respondents supported such a policy, compared with 24 percent who were opposed.


Additionally, the policy is popular among Democrats and Independents. Fully 74 percent of Democrats supported the policy with just 3 percent opposed, and Independents supported the policy by a 46-29 percent margin. Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the policy by a 24 percent support to 46 percent opposed margin.


And while we find that Buy Clean has broad public support, we are also seeing key Democratic leaders endorse this approach.

Presidential candidate and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tells us that creating a clean procurement policy is a top priority for her environmental agenda. Gillibrand, an early endorser of the Green New Deal tells us, "The Green New Deal is a critical call to action and the federal government has a duty to help lead the way through its actions. We need to look at every opportunity that will help transition our country to a clean economy and one part of the answer should be using the government's purchasing power by creating a federal ‘buy clean’ standard. I look forward to working with together Data for Progress and others in the environmental and labor community to build a clean energy economy with good-paying union jobs."

The Senator is right.

Julian Brave NoiseCat (@jnoisecat) is Director of Green New Deal Strategy at Data for Progress.

Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee) is a co-founder of Data for Progress.

On behalf of Data for Progress, YouGov Blue fielded a national survey of US registered voters. The national issues survey was conducted by YouGov Blue from April 29, 2019-May 5, 2019 using YouGov’s online panel. The sample consists of 1,095 respondents interviewed on the internet who were registered to vote. The sample was weighted to be representative of the national population of voters by age, race, sex, education, and region using a 2018 US voter frame.

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