'Sustainable buying' now clearer

15 November 2007

15 November 2007 | Paul Snell

Most buyers now understand the meaning of the term "sustainable procurement", according to the latest SM 100 poll.

The survey of 100 buyers found 55 per cent now comprehend the term, compared with 45 per cent who do not. This is a dramatic improvement on last year, when 83 per cent did not believe there was a clear understanding of the term in the profession.

Action from private sector firms such as E.ON, Skanska and Diageo, and the publication of the government's response to the report of the Sustainable Procurement Task Force (SPTF) have raised the profile of the topic significantly in the past 12 months.

A consensus has built around a definition of the term that covers buying goods and services based on their whole-life cost, taking into account their environmental, social and economic effects.

"There have been so many written and verbal announcements that its definition is now well known," said consultant Alex Strange.

But some respondents were critical of mixed messages, such as sustainable initiatives that only focus on environmental actions. "The definition is a lot clearer for me after the SPTF published its report," said Andy Davies, deputy CEO at Firebuy. "But I am still dismayed the government's definition seems to be limited to environmental performance."

Others believe the focus needs to shift away from procurement to educate other departments. "The volume of the messages and increased media coverage can make it more confusing for our internal customers and some of our suppliers," said Kayzi Ambridge, responsible procurement manager at E.ON UK.

The survey also revealed more must be done to inform and convince some buyers. "The definition has become tighter in the past year, but there are too many," said one. "In the construction industry there seems to be very little desire from clients to see it happen, so anything we do is at our cost."

Susan Godfrey, senior buyer at Haden Building Management, said: "It is not clear, but clearer than before. The term is still broad and can be applied to so much, but there seems to be less confusion."

Others criticised the use of sustainable strategies as PR exercises or as chances for suppliers to sell solutions to the problem.

But Shaun McCarthy, director of Action Sustainability, was pleased with the turnaround. "I'm delighted there has been an improvement because a lot of effort has been put in to develop this understanding," he said. "Now this needs to be resourced correctly."

Fiona Dowson, lead adviser on sustainable procurement at Forum for the Future, told SM: "It's great that more people feel they understand what sustainable procurement means. It's the first step towards action, but translating this understanding into real procurement decisions is vital."

But there remains a difference between understanding and action. "I will be honest," said one buyer. "It has not altered the way I buy."

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