Sustainability is hotting up

3 October 2007
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04 October 2007

Speakers at the CIPS/SM Efficient & Sustainable Public Sector Procurement event gave compelling reasons for buyers to face the issue. By Antony Barton and Paul Snell

Why should public sector buyers care about sustainability? For former OGC chief executive Peter Fanning, the answer is obvious. "You need to follow the money," he said at last month's CIPS/SM Efficient & Sustainable Public Sector Procurement event. "It is difficult to get excited about sustainability when resources appear plentiful, but constraints are making it a real deal within departments." But familiar barriers, particularly the convergence of the two issues, are obstructing what Shaun McCarthy, director of Action Sustainability and chair for the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, calls the "decade of sustainability".

"Many think managing value for money with sustainability is too complex," says Michael Whitehouse, assistant auditor general at the National Audit Office. But he adds, "these issues are not insurmountable and you can come up with a solution".

Motivating and encouraging personal responsibility for sustainability is one way of tackling it. "We can't change the world until buyers in the public sector grasp the agenda," says Ian Taylor, commercial director at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

McCarthy agrees. He says buyers need to decide what parts of the business they can influence, and act on them.

And Ninian Wilson, group procurement director at Royal Mail, says the public sector has a unique advantage with its staff. "Loyalty in the public sector is something you can build on. You don't get that in the private sector." He believes a positive attitude is the best way to tackle the problem. "Sustainability and cost-savings are not mutually exclusive - only if you make them so."

But Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, says he doesn't believe "the pivotal importance of sustainable procurement has really got sufficient traction inside the UK public sector".

He attributes this to the government's meek commitment to sustainability, admitting "there is by no means universal consensus to give this higher priority".

He adds that procurement is at the heart of stopping global warming. "It is the precondition on which governments will be able to deliver this concept of sustainable economy."

The way to provide the necessary traction, he says, is to hold up exemplars of good practice when we have them, such as the London 2012 Olympics, hoped to be the most sustainable the world has seen.

But McCarthy warns buyers to be careful when adopting sustainable principles. Most people would accuse a 4x4 car of being less 'green' than a hybrid vehicle, but this approach could overlook the manufacturing process, end-of-life disposal and cost of additional components.

"It depends on how you measure sustainability," he says. "And it depends on what sustainable impact you think your organisation is responsible for. What do you want your supply chain to do?"

Whitehouse extols the value of whole-life costing, but concedes that departments do not always accept this as justification for a higher initial cost of purchase. And short-term budgets are often prohibitive. A "silo mentality" still exists, preventing collaborative procurement that could avoid budget problems. It's a mentality McCarthy sums up as: "Whole-life cost, provided it's in our department."


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