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14 February 2008
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14 February 2008 professionals aiming to improve procurement's wider impact are grappling with a new buzz word: responsible. But what does it mean? Paul Snell finds out

What's in a name? Quite a lot it seems, if you are describing how to make procurement more environmentally, socially and ethically aware.

Should it be called corporate social responsibility? Or a "green supply chain"? How about "sustainable procurement", a term that has proved confusing for some buyers in the past?

Well, now we have the advent of "responsible" procurement (see news stories on GLA and Scottish Parliament). But what's the difference between the terms? Is it simply a matter of semantics? Not at all, according to the buyers trying to implement it, or indeed them.

"The term 'sustainable procurement' doesn't really incorporate the people side and it can isolate the social and ethical issues," says Lynn Garvie, head of procurement at the Scottish Parliament, which has just launched its responsible purchasing strategy.

Henry Abraham, head of economic development and transport at the Greater London Authority (GLA), which also now practices "responsible" procurement, adds: "The content hasn't shifted but we realised we weren't communicating it as best we could. The common understanding tends to be 'green' but we wanted to improve the social side, which has increased over the past few years."

His colleague, Katherine Adams, head of responsible procurement, adds there has not been a fundamental change in policy, but a rebalancing of priorities. "There hasn't been a shift, but the belief is now that identifying each strand of the sustainable development agenda is of equal importance."

Garvie explains the journey to "responsible" procurement has been a long one, evolving over a number of years. But she says a knee-jerk reaction would have been the wrong approach. "It is an incremental process. A lot of people will say it has

taken us a long time, but we have to be realistic and justify everything. If we made a claim and didn't deliver on it we would read about it in the press. We were quite systematic about the process and clear it would be a long-term project."

And it is clear buyers must understand what they are responsible for: "We tried to identify what we could do in practical terms, because we don't have a lot of influence in the market - what we could achieve, relative to our spend," says Garvie.

The GLA has taken a similar approach, realising that by combining spend with others, and having a joined-up policy, it could achieve more than if it worked alone (see news story).

The policy should also remain active: "We have been faced with resource shortages and a heavy workload. It's very easy at that time to say we'll shelve this for a while," says Garvie. "So it is absolutely important to have the commitment of the head of procurement and your senior management. It's really easy to get disheartened, so you have to keep the momentum going."

Stakeholders have been vital in developing and implementing the policies. For Garvie, the policy was initially driven by the interest of Scottish politicians in individual projects. And the GLA has benefited from the interest and support of London's mayor, Ken Livingstone.

And both organisations report a healthier interest from suppliers as the agenda has gained prominence. "There has been a significant step-change in the understanding of responsible procurement among suppliers," adds Adams.

So what's the advice for buyers who want to take up the responsible procurement challenge? Garvie says an individual approach is best: "It is whatever works for you. You cannot say one size fits all. The response has to be tailored to your organisation."

But Adams believes best practice can easily be adapted. "All the strands can be used by any organisation, large or small, public or private sector."


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