Sustainability weathers crisis

10 November 2008

10 November 2008 | Jake Kanter

Sustainable procurement continues to be a priority for buyers even during tough economic conditions, the latest SM100 poll has revealed

The survey of 100 purchasers found 66 per cent believed sustainability issues have not fallen in importance, despite the financial crisis. The respondents suggested that adopting long-term sustainable strategies could deliver greater savings and more security of supply than responding solely to the current economic climate.

Kayzi Ambridge, responsible procurement manager at E.ON UK, said sustainable purchasing has a stronger and sounder business case than ever before. "It's about looking at what products are made of, where they come from, who has made them and what happens to them after they are used. And it's increasingly about looking at whether the purchase needs to be made at all, which resonates strongly in our current climate."

Collan Murray, senior procurement manager in the Central Responsible Procurement Team at the Greater London Authority, agreed. "Neglecting sustainable products in a short-term focus on cost-saving could prove to be more expensive for companies in the long term," he said. "Buying IT hardware that isn't energy efficient may provide a cheaper purchase cost, but energy consumption over the lifecycle will be greater, leading to a higher total cost of ownership."

However just over a third of respondents felt that sustainable procurement is not a priority during a downturn. They argued sustainability is more expensive and when times are difficult, cost reduction projects dominate strategies.

Adam Smith, commodity manager at manufacturer Ceramaspeed, said: "When jobs are on the line and livelihoods at risk, they focus on doing what they can to financially benefit their own organisation. Therefore, cost reductions and ensuring supply are given more focus than sustainable procurement."

Sustainable purchasing experts told SM they were encouraged the issue is still a priority. "There has been a huge rise in awareness and the message is starting to get across. In the private sector there is the potential for gaining a competitive advantage through sustainable procurement, and in the public sector policy is starting to get real movement," said Shaun McCarthy, director of Action Sustainability.

Sustainability advisor Blake Lee-Harwood said unless the economy hits "ground zero" sustainable procurement will continue to be high on the agenda. "Companies which are good at sustainable procurement are run better, are more commercially successful and will survive a downturn. Ultimately, sustainable procurement is good procurement."

But Fiona Dowson, lead adviser at sustainable development charity Forum for the Future, was more cautious of the poll's outcome. She said there is a false assumption among buyers that responsible purchasing is not cost-effective.

She urged them to embrace the topic: "Sustainable procurement is one way of dealing with a recession. The very definition of sustainability, is something that survives.

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