How sustainable procurement competence varies by category

Shaun McCarthy
6 December 2013

Shaun McCarthy 6 December 2013 | Shaun McCarthy

I have spent the past month or so doing some ‘real’ procurement, helping two clients evaluate the ability of potential suppliers to meet their challenging sustainability objectives. The evaluations were in two very different categories of supply and it is interesting to compare and contrast the outcomes without giving away any confidential information.

First, the questions I drafted were related to the purchaser’s sustainability ambitions the supplier needed to respond to, not how green the supplier’s practices were. This keeps faith with my principle of “sustainable supply, not sustainable supplier” which I have written about before.

One tender was a major construction project, the other a series of tenders for facilities management (FM) services such as cleaning, security and maintenance. In both cases the majority of suppliers had a “copy and paste” approach to sustainability questions, trotting out a lot of standard guff they used in their last tender in the full expectation the client is not really serious about this “green crap”, as the Prime Minister was alleged to have put it, and that a token gesture would be sufficient.

Fortunately many companies take sustainability much more seriously and very specific questions about the sustainability of the service being tendered immediately flush out the “copy and paste” brigade.

Of the shortlisted suppliers there was a distinctly different response between the two different categories. The construction suppliers totally got the environmental objectives, with very sophisticated processes for managing impacts such as waste, carbon and air quality. They were on less safe ground when asked about social and economic indicators such as local employment, procurement, living wage, apprenticeships, etc.

The FM suppliers were the opposite. The nature of their services tends to be local so their contribution to the local economy tends to be good and they are able to measure and improve their performance. On environmental impacts, the response is not so good, with a couple of notable exceptions. When one shortlisted supplier was asked about their carbon strategy the response was “we are thinking about buying an electric van”.

Overall, the result was good in both cases. Using a balanced scorecard approach, the suppliers with the best sustainability response did not win because they were weaker in other areas but the selected suppliers had acceptable responses and were willing to develop their capability and accept stretching contractual objectives with appropriate incentives and remedies. It is important to build your sustainability goals into contracts and monitor them. What you contract for is what you get.

It is refreshing to see sustainability built so comprehensively into mainstream procurement practice, for too long this has been a token gesture where a “copy and paste” response will suffice.

☛ Shaun McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability

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