News focus: The definition of sustainable

16 November 2006

16 November 2006 | Paul Snell

Sustainability is high on the agenda in public and private sectors, but purchasers have to answer a critical question: what is it? Paul Snell looks for answers

There is currently an "unprecedented" interest in environmental policy, according to John Healey, the procurement minister.

It is an opinion shared by Helen Ghosh, permanent secretary at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. "The Stern [climate change] review gave us a new focus for action," she told purchasers at the national sustainable procurement conference this month. "We have to commit to sustainable procurement."

But how can buyers commit to something that they do not fully understand? Not least because of seemingly mixed messages that come from government.

Government ministers and civil servants, like Healey and Ghosh, are emphasising the increased profile and importance of sustainability in procurement. But the government is yet to take action and respond to the report of the Sustainable Procurement Task Force, which was issued in June.

Even Sir Neville Simms, chairman of the task force, was surprised by the delay and the time the government was taking to reply. "Where is that response?" he asked the audience of buyers at the conference. "I do believe it is on its way. You may, like me, wonder why it takes more than half the time to produce the report, than to reply to it."

Healey agreed that the principle behind sustainable procurement was relatively simple: "Smarter, rather than just greener, buying."

But part of the problem, according to the buyers who responded to the SM poll, is that there are too many views of what sustainable procurement is.

"I have had conversations with procurement professionals around two separate types of 'sustainable'," said one private-sector buyer. "In a green sense, and about long-term economic viability in terms of price."

And there are still problems even if buyers do understand the term. "There is a difference in knowledge of a requirement and the implementation of it," says Gary Moore, strategic procurement manager at Bournemouth Borough Council. "The biggest hurdle is the negative perception of sustainable solutions coming at a cost premium."

Healey explains: "We need people who do not retreat to the lowest price solution, because it appears at first sight to be the most easily defensible."

Sarah-Jayne Aldridge, UK sourcing manager at French investment bank Société Générale, says the strategies in sustainable procurement are the same as in traditional good procurement. "It's about retaining and developing purchasing talent, good knowledge transfer practices and the business compliance to long-term strategies and moving away from quick wins."

But some buyers are sceptical. "I'm interested to see if it means anything or if it is just another term whipped up to sell consulting services," said one.

Optimistic buyers see sustainable procurement as a way of improving the profession's profile. Procurement needs to be more assertive in pushing this up the corporate agenda, says Paul Bestford, senior director strategic sourcing at Wyeth pharmaceuticals.

Joanne Nicholson, procurement policy consultant at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, agrees: "Procurement departments can be the best guardians to ensure sustainability is addressed within any organisation."

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