Dump the questionnaires and free your mind

24 January 2013
It is 10 years since I tore up the sustainable procurement rule book and started again. My environmental colleagues wanted me to send an incredibly complicated questionnaire to all my suppliers about their environmental practices and apply a 5 per cent weighting to all tender evaluations based on this information. I thought this was nonsense then and I still do now. I hate questionnaires. They add cost, time and little or no value. My colleagues soon got to know this. When I asked “what are we (as a company) actually trying to achieve?” the answer proved to be quite tricky. It took a year of painstaking work with the environment team and others in the business to thrash out some clear sustainability objectives that could be applied in a prioritised and intelligent way as part of a well-structured procurement strategy. I was not the only person doing this at the time but I was one of the first.

My subsequent engagement with like-minded people through Business in the Community, the sustainable procurement task force and eventually through my own business, Action Sustainability has led to this thinking being established in the government’s Flexible Framework and the development of BS 8903 in 2010, the world’s first standard for sustainable procurement practice and the supply chain sustainability school in the construction sector.

I was really pleased to receive news last week from BSI that an ISO standard in being proposed. I plan to get fully involved in this project if I can to make sure that the best practice developed in the UK is shared with the world. I attended a workshop last week with a property sector client who totally gets the concept of sustainable supply over sustainable supplier. They have clear sustainability objectives and want to understand how their supply chain is going to support their objectives. For example, if they appoint an architect they want somebody who can design buildings that are energy, efficient, use less resources and, if possible, that the resources used are from secondary sources. As a concerned citizen of the planet I may be worried about the energy efficiency of their office, what sort of cars they drive or if they recycle their discarded pencils, as a procurement professional I don’t give a damn. The purpose of a supply chain is to support delivery of the business objectives of the client (be it value, quality, safety or sustainability), and, where appropriate to mitigate risk. You can imagine my dismay that questionnaires are not only alive and well, they are multiplying. Organisations are finding ever increasingly sophisticated ways of collecting meaningless information through the web for their clients to ignore or to be totally baffled about how to use this information to make procurement decisions. In common with everything in our profession, there are no easy answers and grasping for ‘tick box’ solutions will inevitably fail. Sustainable procurement requires some strategic thought and a rigorous approach to implementation. Do yourself a favour, dump the questionnaires and free your mind. ☛ Shaun McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability
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