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Brita Reaffirms GSA's Commitment to Disabled Communities Across the Country

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Susan Brita
Deputy Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
National Industries for the Blind 2010 Opportunity Forum
Scottsdale, AZ
June 14, 2010

Thank you, Kevin, for that generous introduction.  I’m delighted to be here with you today, and it is a privilege to address the leadership of the National Industries for the Blind.

As many of you may know, in my previous job, I worked for Congressman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who is a passionate advocate for employment opportunities for blind and disabled people, so my knowledge of your organization and the great work you do goes back quite a way.

I’m delighted to see that the theme for this conference is “A New Decade: Get Ready to Engage,” because it fits so well with my message to you today and with GSA’s mission and forward-moving agenda.

It’s an exciting time to be in Washington, and I say that as someone who has worked there for almost 30 years. It’s also an exciting time to be working at the GSA; the president has given us a bold and extensive new agenda, and he is counting on GSA to take the lead in a number of his frontline priorities. Today I’d like to speak with you about several of those priorities, and how we need the partnership of the National Industries for the Blind and its affiliated agencies to help us meet our goals.

First, though, I would like to recognize the long –– and strong –– partnership that GSA and the federal government has had with suppliers that employ blind people. As you no doubt know, the landmark Wagner-O’Day Act that required federal agencies to purchase certain supplies and services from businesses that employed blind workers was signed by President Roosevelt in 1938, and GSA was established 11 years later, in 1949.

You were there with us at our birth, and from the beginning, NIB has been a reliable, steadfast, and valuable partner. Just last year, GSA Global Supply sold more than $171 million worth of AbilityOne products. We look forward to strengthening our ties and deepening that relationship as we take our first steps into this next decade and beyond.

President Obama has made economic and social integration of people with disabilities a key priority of his administration and has directed the federal government to expand access to employment opportunities. I quote him:

“My Administration is committed to promoting positive change for every American, including those with disabilities. The Federal Government and its contractors can lead the way by implementing effective employment policies and practices that increase opportunities and help workers achieve their full potential. Across this country, millions of people with disabilities are working or want to work. We must ensure they have access to the support and services they need to succeed. … We grow stronger as a Nation when Americans feel the dignity conferred by having the ability to support themselves and their families through productive work.”

GSA is committed to the president’s message, and NIB and its associated agencies represented here today play a critical role in our nation’s economic and social fabric, and are pillars upon which the federal government can rely. By providing stable jobs and employment to people with disabilities across the country, you give hope, dignity, and a way of life to Americans who might otherwise be unemployed.

The statistics are stark: Seven out of 10 working age Americans who are blind are unemployed, and even though AbilityOne employs 45,000 disabled people, there are 54 million disabled Americans, many of whom need jobs, incomes, and hope.

In past tough economic times, disabled Americans have too often been overlooked and underserved. Not this time. With NIB at the helm, GSA and the federal government are committed to continuing our strong partnership and giving hands up –– not hand outs –– to disabled communities across the country.

And why wouldn’t we? Your track record of good and better business is exemplary: In the last year alone, despite the economic challenges facing the country, NIB was able to increase employment by 4 percent and raise wages by 6 percent. That’s real change, and it is change we can all be proud to stand behind. And now, as we see signs of broad, systemic economic recovery, we are confident that NIB and its affiliates will continue to grow and be a constant source of dignity and pride for disabled Americans.

We are also proud to work with organizations that so consistently produce top-quality products and services at competitive market prices.

NIB and its affiliates have always been a go-to suppliers, with federal employees the world over relying on your products. Whether it is the postal worker in Sacramento, the FBI agent in Memphis, or the soldier, sailor, or airman in the field, day in and day out, they depend on the high quality goods and services that you and your affiliates produce. As our nation reaches ever higher in our collective aspirations, our public servants reach into their jacket pockets or onto their supply shelves for the famous Skilcraft government-issue pen or the new Skilcraft bio-friendly cutlery, cleaners, and so much more. In an age of hi-tech innovation and new gizmos and gadgets, the federal government can be sure that the roughly 4 million Skilcraft pens it buys won’t fail us; we don’t need an IT help desk for a Skilcraft pen. As someone who uses pen and paper a lot, I can tell you how grateful I am to have these products.

In turn, we won’t fail you. As I mentioned, GSA is taking a leading role in promoting the president’s agenda in a number of important areas, and we will look to all our industry partners, including NIB and its affiliates, for help in achieving those goals. I’d like to highlight one area in particular where your skills and insights will be particularly useful: sustainability.

In Executive Order 13514 of Oct. 5, President Obama required all agencies to “leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products, and services” and to “design, construct, maintain, and operate high performance sustainable buildings.” As the federal government’s landlord and product contractor, GSA has a big role to play here. The president has put GSA squarely on his “green team,” along with the Department of Energy and the Council on Environmental Quality. We have embraced his confidence in us, and we have committed ourselves to achieving a zero environmental footprint across the federal government.

Let me be clear: We’re not aiming for limited carbon emissions from our fleet, and we’re not aiming for marginal decreases in our building’s energy needs. We are aiming for zero environmental footprint. That means zero emissions from our fleet, zero footprint from our buildings, zero waste byproducts from our supplies and suppliers.

And we’re not just talking about the old ideas of reduce, reuse, and recycle at the product level.  We’re dealing with a new paradigm: a cradle-to-cradle philosophy where products, services, and buildings are conceived, designed, created, used, and reincarnated with green thinking as the driving force behind the entire process.

We are, in short, aiming for zero environmental footprint and design excellence across our building portfolio, across our supply program, and across the government. It’s a bold agenda, but it’s one that we stand by and are eager to move on aggressively. And we need your help.

But this agenda stretches across all of government and not only to our internal operations. As our partners, you know that GSA’s core mission is to support our client agencies so that they can focus on their core missions. It is not enough for us to simply green our buildings or our fleet, we need to help and lead other agencies in their greening missions. We must become and remain the government’s trusted adviser, helping to make their acquisition processes easier and more sustainable, and we must weave sustainability into the fabric of government. This isn’t about one administration or one political philosophy; this is about long-term, deliberate change that will benefit our nation for generations.

Our sustainability agenda is about more than being socially responsible and ethically intelligent, though it is both of those. Our agenda is about better government through better business thinking. I know you heard from Tim Sanders earlier today. In his book "Saving the World at Work," Tim describes what he sees as a “responsibility revolution” where companies are increasingly competing not simply for the bottom line and profit-line market share, but also for the socially responsible market share.

He believes that this revolution will “redefine innovation, branding, leadership, management excellence, and courage in the business world.”  We at GSA couldn’t agree more. This new agenda is smart business thinking, and it will help our clients –– the American people –– get a bigger and, importantly, better return on investment.

Look, for example, at Wal-Mart and UPS, two business behemoths that have embraced social responsibility as a core tenet of their business model and have done well because of it.

Wal-Mart is eliminating excessive packaging, making their trucks more energy-efficient, reducing solid waste, and putting more organic food on shelves. Each of these sends a large and powerful signal that can shift behaviors in the market. Wal-Mart has also experimented with heating stores via used cooking oil and, while not profitable in one store, they see profit potential in scaling that project up. We should all keep an eye on such activity.

Or take a look at UPS, a company that has used new technologies to shave –– in one recent year –– 28.5 million miles off of its fleet’s odometer and thus save 3 million gallons of gas and 31,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. How? By eliminating left turns from their delivery routes.  It’s that simple. And that savings is significant enough to hit their bottom line. You can bet other transportation companies are noticing how straightforward it was in that case to wring out savings and subsequent profit.

As the business arm of the federal government, GSA will act as a fulcrum with which to leverage the government’s buying power and create green market ripples throughout the system and along the supply chain.

I mention all this to say that sustainability has shown itself to be better for business, and we’re going to pass that better-business model on to the taxpayer. This is why we at GSA are so excited about NIB’s lines of bio-friendly products. We are looking to create not just an expanded green aisle of goods for our client agencies but move to a single nongreen aisle of goods; we are aiming for deep market penetration of reliable, high-quality, truly sustainable products across our supply program.

As we begin to put a premium on green suppliers –– say, by listing not just the monetary price of a given product in the supply catalog but also its environmental price and carbon footprint –– NIB is already well ahead of the curve; that will surely stand you in good stead and give you a competitive market advantage in the years ahead.

Many of your nonprofit agency partners such as LHB Industries, SABVI, IB Milwaukee, and South Texas Lighthouse –– just to name a few –– have begun to roll out new green supplies.  But there isn’t time to rest on your laurels and consider the work done because we are only beginning.

As we leap forward together to a greener and more productive future, we at GSA have a challenge for you as our industry partners. We challenge you to be ever more creative and ever more innovative. Partner with us, embrace the challenges, and see every challenge as an opportunity. With this proactive stance, together we will continue to find the innovative solutions that built our country and upon which we now stand. So work with us; let’s harmonize our needs to your supplies and services.

Rather than wait for us to ask for the product, seize the initiative, and supply proactive solutions to future needs and demands. Talk to us about your successes and your failures, tell us your best practices and your not-so-best practices. Explain to us your industry’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

GSA and NIB have a partnership that is built to last. We have worked together productively for the past 61 years, and we have always been able to count on you to deliver the best products and solutions that our enterprise has required.

Today, as we stand at the beginning of a new century, we need your help more than ever as we face new and daunting challenges. GSA is committed to deep, broad, and lasting change that will resonate throughout our society for generations to come, and we are confident that NIB will rise to the occasion. I speak on behalf of the GSA when I say that we couldn’t ask for a better partner in this grand new venture than NIB and its associated agencies.

Thank you.  

I would now like to recognize and congratulate two GSA employees, Bernard Bartenbach and Helen Shekter, who will receive the AbilityOne Advocate Partner in Excellence and the AbilityOne Advocate Channel Partner awards. They exemplify the kind of cooperation and partnership that is the bedrock of the GSA-NIB relationship. Congratulations Bernard and Helen.