Struggle with sustainability

16 November 2006

16 November 2006 | Paul Snell

More than 80 per cent of purchasers believe the profession lacks a clear understanding of the term "sustainable procurement".

According to an SM survey of 100 buyers in both the public and private sector, only 17 per cent said they felt the concept was fully understood.

The results come as buyers "eagerly anticipate" the government's formal response to the Sustainable Procurement Task Force's report, according to its chairman Sir Neville Simms.

There were common reasons among buyers in the public and private sector for the lack of understanding. "There is just too much jargon, and not enough common sense," said one buyer.

"Considering there is no clear understanding of sustainability at government and international level, it is hardly surprising this is mirrored in the purchasing sector," said another.

Some purchasers believed sustainable procurement was a term some buyers could recognise, but that they would give varying definitions when questioned.

"The problem is the terms sustainable, green, ethical and fair trade are used interchangeably and in a confusing way," said one buyer in the construction industry. 

Gareth Hughes, head of inventory purchasing at BUPA, said: "There needs to be a consistent message sent out to the market by some of the major players in public or private sector."

Robin Hunt, director of procurement at the University of Surrey, said a lack of understanding meant buyers were unable to set firm goals. "We have draft sustainable procurement policy, but no targets," he said. "Targets might come once we have a clear understanding."

Other buyers said the term was understood in the environmental sense, but lacked a full understanding of community and social issues that can also be factors.

"Environmental issues are a part of this, but other topics are important," said Carly Wedderburn, procurement officer at Torbay Council. "This issue does not just cover what we buy but how we buy, and this is the area that suffers a lack of understanding."

Balancing the conflict between buying sustainable products, which are often perceived to be more expensive, and the traditional focus of cost reduction, was another frequent conflict raised by buyers.

"If a buyer was asked why he had not saved any money this year, a response of 'well, I didn't save any money, but I helped save the planet' is hardly going to impress the CEO," said Adam Smith, senior buyer at Ceramaspeed.

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