Sustainable procurement

Sustainable procurement

Sustainable procurement is a spending and investment process typically associated with public policy, although it is equally applicable to the private sector.

Organisations practicing sustainable procurement meet their needs for goods, services, utilities and works not on a private cost-benefit analysis, but with a view to maximising net benefits for themselves and the wider world.

In doing so they must incorporate extrinsic cost considerations into decisions alongside the conventional procurement criteria of price and quality. These considerations are typically divided thus: environmental, economic and social (also known as the “triple baseline”).

There is no single definition of sustainable procurement – not least because sustainability is a contested concept – and applications vary across organisational hierarchy and sector.

Exogenous considerations: the “triple baseline”

Procurement - the acquisition of goods and services on the best possible terms - has historically been based on two criteria, price and quality, with a view to maximising benefits for the procuring organisation.

Sustainable procurement broadens this framework to take account of third-party consequences of procurement decisions, forming a “triple baseline” of external concerns which the procuring organisation must fulfil.


Environmental concerns are the dominant macro-level justification for sustainable procurement, born out of the growing 21st century consensus that humanity is placing excessive demands on available resources through unsustainable but well-established consumption patterns.

This is a sufficiently influential issue that environment-centric procurement (green procurement) is sometimes seen to stand alone from sustainable procurement. The most straightforward justification for green procurement is as a tool with which to address climate change, but it offers the broader capacity to mitigate over-exploitation of any and all scarce resources.

Examples of green procurement range from the purchase of energy-saving lightbulbs to the commissioning of a new building from renewably-sourced timber via organic food being served in a workplace canteen. The ultimate green procurement is the avoidance of the purchase altogether.

In support of Sustainable Development the organization should develop and publish a 'Sustainable Development Procurement Guidelines and Procedures'. When it comes to purchasing products or services, referral to these guidelines would help make the organization become a leader in environmentally responsible purchasing. [ [ Government of Canada – Procurement] ] [ [ ISO standard for purchasers] ]


Sustainable procurement is also used to address issues of social policy, such as inclusiveness, equality and diversity targets, regeneration and integration.

Examples include addressing the needs – whether employment, care, welfare or other – of groups including ethnic minorities, children, the elderly, those with disabilities, adults lacking basic skills, and immigrant populations.

Socially sustainable procurement is sometimes amalgamated with economic issues under a “socio-economic” header and, in a similar fashion to affirmative action in the USA, is frequently met with the criticism that it is subjectively-founded social engineering [citation needed] .


On a macroeconomic level, it can be argued that there are economic benefits in the form of efficiency gains from incorporating whole-life costing into decision-making. [Note: in contrast to most arguments from sustainable procurement proponents, these can be purely private benefits accrued by the procuring organisation.]

In addition, the creation of sustainable markets is essential for long-term growth while sustainable development requirements foster innovation. There are also potential global applications: sustainable procurement can favour fair trade or ethical practice, and allow extra investment to channelled towards developing countries.

On a microeconomic level, sustainable procurement offers the chance for economic redistribution. Targets might include creation of jobs and wealth in regeneration areas, or assistance for small and/or ethnic minority-owned businesses.


Central Government

In central government, sustainable procurement is typically viewed as the application of sustainable development criteria to spending and investment decisions. Given high-profile socio-economic and environmental concerns such as globalisation and climate change, governments are increasingly concerned that our actions meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.

The UK in 2005 pledged to be a performance-leader in sustainable procurement by 2009 and commissioned the business-led Sustainable Procurement Task Force to formulate appropriate strategy. [ The Sustainable Procurement Task Force] Broad-based procurement strategies are prominent across the EU [ European Union Green Public Procurement] while it is an increasingly influential concern elsewhere, most notably Canada. [ Canadian Government Procurement Greening]

Devolved and Local Government

At market-level, sustainable procurement is typically instrumental: authorities seek to address policy "through procurement". [ OGC Statement on Efficiency and Sustainable Procurement]

Government departments and local bodies can use procurement to address certain chosen agendas in buying solutions that will contribute to community or environmental goals, or to diversity or equality targets.

Under sustainable procurement criteria any procuring organisation must therefore take a broad approach to sustainability, reflecting localised economic, environmental and social needs as well as cross-cutting sustainable development targets such as whole-life costing.

Private Sector

Sustainable procurement is as applicable to the private sector as the public sector, and certainly its proponents aspire to seeing its application across all areas of the economy. Influencing procurement practice within a private-sector firm is not straightforward for governments, meaning that the companies themselves often have to be self-motivated to embrace sustainability.

The UK’s Sustainable Procurement National Action Plan argues that it is “something the best of the private sector is already doing - whether through enlightened leadership or shareholder pressure”. [ 'Procuring the Future: Sustainable Procurement National Action Plan' by Sustainable Procurement Task Force] It also argues that government purchasing power (circa £150bn in the UK alone) can apply sustainable procurement principles to present a persuasive case to those in the private sector resisting sustainable procurement practice.

Policy development

On December 8, 2006 the Greater London Authority became the first public-sector body to publish a sustainable procurement policy, [ The GLA Group Sustainable Procurement Policy] promising to award a “distinct competitive advantage” to those companies which demonstrated a commitment to sustainable procurement concerns. [ "Financial Times", December 8, 2006, 'Diversity linked to London contracts'] The policy reflected Mayor Ken Livingstone’s enthusiasm for public procurement as a tool for fostering social inclusion, equality and environmental objectives.

The GLA also stated that their policy was “very much as a model for broader government procurement” but this expectation was not fulfilled in the UK Government’s Sustainable Procurement Action Plan, published on March 5, 2007. [ UK Government Sustainable Procurement Action Plan] The Action Plan, which incorporated answers to the Sustainable Procurement Task Force, was explicitly environment-centric in approach (Ch 4.3) with wider social issues scarcely addressed.

This was perhaps surprising, as was press disinterest in the publication. Despite its acknowledged importance among senior politicians and business leaders, publication of the Action Plan received only one national newspaper report, and that was markedly flippant in tone. [ "Financial Times", March 6, 2007, 'Government seeks green toilet paper']

See also

*Sustainable development
*Green procurement
*Triple bottom line


External links

* [ Sustainable Procurement Task Force]
* [ Mayor of London, the London Assembly and the Greater London Authority]
* [ Serco Institute Resource Centre: Sustainable Procurement publications]

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