Sustainable procurement is designed to take into account the environmental, social and economic impacts of purchased goods and services for a business. Often such guidance is provided in the form of a policy document which may have been written by, or in consultation with, a procurement professional.
But how can professionals know exactly what constitutes sustainable or “green” procurement? Without a background in sustainable purchasing or a solid working knowledge of the surrounding issues, it can be challenging to know what sort of criteria to include in a policy document, or which products and services meet those criteria.
Where to start?
Both the Australian Government and City Switch have produced excellent guidelines for sustainable procurement policies. To summarise some of the suggestions provided in the City Switch report, these are the key steps towards introducing a sustainable procurement policy in your organisation:
- Avoid any unnecessary consumption – do you really need to purchase something?
- Identify the environmental and social impacts of the purchase, as well as its risks – what are the main impact areas over the life cycle of the product, from raw material sourcing to disposal?
- Set out the top priorities for your organisation in terms of environmental and social sustainability goals and how these line up with your organisation’s core values
- Keep accurate records of purchasing decisions for future reference, and communicate these to your staff and stakeholders.
Choosing criteria and evaluating evidence
Once priorities have been set and a sustainable policy framework has been established, how can professionals choose between multiple products making similar sustainability claims?
Choosing specific and measureable criteria for selecting goods and services can be extremely challenging without the benefit of prior knowledge of exactly what makes a product or service “green” or sustainable in the first place. Once the criteria are established, the second challenge lies in assessing the products that fit these criteria – whether they really live up to their claims and meet those criteria.
Ecolabels can fit perfectly into sustainable procurement policies, considering that standards of sustainability have already been established and certifying bodies have done all the work for you in checking whether a product actually meets those sustainability standards or criteria. In these cases, it makes sense to look to organisations that make sustainable products their business and their products carry an ecolabel on them.
However, often only a fraction of products in the current market carry an ecolabel, and so it may become necessary to look at ways of increasing the range of choice available. In these cases having access to the list of criteria used for awarding an ecolabel can form the backbone of your policy document.
For example, all of Good Environmental Choice Australia’s standards are freely available for anyone to read. These contain detailed criteria for environmental, health and social performance, as well as including criteria that ensure products are fit for purpose. Procurement professionals can pick and choose all or relevant criteria (as per their organisational values and goals) from these standards to include in their own policy documents.
Once potential products meeting those criteria are identified, they can then either check for the presence of the ecolabel on the product or, for those without an ecolabel, ask those suppliers for the same proof (such as test results from an independent audit) that the ecolabel organisation demands. Not only does this provide a credible benchmark for product or service performance, but it allows purchasers to compare the sustainability credentials of different suppliers before deciding which is best.
The International Standards Organization in the process of developing an ISO standard on sustainable procurement (ISO 20400). The standard is intended to bring value beyond the procurement and purchasing community by helping to disseminate CSR practices contained in ISO 26000:2010, Guidance on social responsibility, throughout supply chains, and ultimately the entire economy.
A project committee has been set up to develop the standard and 20 countries, including Australia in an active role, are currently participating in its work. It is estimated that the standard will be released in 2016 and is expected to significantly influence the way procurement practices are undertaken in Australia. Sustainability labels, certifications and standards again have a high visibility in the ISO standard too.
With growing concerns over the hordes of non-compliant products entering into Australia, labels and certifications offer a level of assurance on the quality of the product, including its sustainability credentials. For more information, read GECA’s article on public procurement at The Fifth Estate.