International standard for sustainable procurement forging ahead

Shaun McCarthy
12 July 2015

Terminology can be very confusing can’t it?

I recall a conference in Prague many years ago where an English speaker was answering questions that were being simultaneously translated into Czech and Polish. Her response to a question was “We don’t just do this willy-nilly”. I think the translators got half the message, resulting in delayed laughter from the audience and red faces all round.

In the UK alone we have many different expressions for sustainable procurement: green public procurement, responsible procurement, ethical procurement, ethical sourcing, eco-buying – the list goes on and on.

So, imagine the size of the challenge when 40 plus nations from all over the world come together to develop an international standard for what the French call “achats durables”.

I am proud to lead the UK delegation on the working committee to develop an international standard for sustainable procurement; ISO 20400. To date this has been a two-year programme of work with a diverse range of nations participating including the US, China, Japan, Israel, Egypt, Australia and numerous others from Europe, Africa, South and central America. The most recent meetings were in June 2015 and I was delighted to welcome my colleagues to London after meetings in Paris, Singapore and Brazil.

The standard is still in committee draft and will likely be published in 2017 but the broad shape and key principles are now agreed. The structure and content will not be unfamiliar to those using BS 8903. It has four sections where BS 8903 has three;

Fundamentals. Deals with the key principles and scope of sustainable procurement. This section draws on ISO 26000, a standard published after BS 8903. But it recognises this is not the only starting point. Many nations and businesses have their own policies already. There is a much stronger emphasis on social issues and human rights. It introduces the concept of complicity; effectively saying “we did not know” will not be an acceptable response from a purchaser if something goes wrong in their supply chain. The section “Why procure sustainably?” will be more familiar to BS 8903 users, much of my work is focused on understanding “why” before tackling the “what “ and “how” so I drafted this section personally with help from a member of the Dutch delegation; it builds on the original standard and takes into account wider issues.

Integrating sustainability into the organisation’s procurement policy and strategy. This sets out how the organisation’s policy and goals are integrated into the procurement process and function. This was covered in “fundamentals” in BS 8903 but has its own short section in the new standard. It introduces ideas from ISO 26000 such as due diligence.

Organising the procurement function towards sustainability. This was called “enablers” in BS 8903 but this terminology did not translate well. It is very similar to BS 8903 and covers governing procurement, enabling people, stakeholder engagement, setting priorities and measuring and improving performance. I drafted the original text for this section and it has been significantly enhanced by contributions from many delegations.

Integrating sustainability into the procurement process. This section is similar in structure to BS 8903 in that it follows the procurement cycle but it has been updated to take into consideration new concepts such as life cycle analysis, due diligence, complicity and global cost.

So, will sustainable procurement have a common language? I think so. Building consensus among people from so many different backgrounds and cultures has been my biggest challenge since the London 2012 Olympics but a worthwhile one. 2017 will be a major milestone for sustainable procurement. You heard it here first.

Shaun McCarthy is director of Action Sustainability

Chelmsford or Cambridge
£33,797 - £39,152 p.a
Anglia Ruskin University
South Sinai (EG)
$100,660, 2 year contract, tax free salary, housing, meals, medical, relocation,
Multinational Force and Observers
CIPS Knowledge
Find out more with CIPS Knowledge:
  • best practice insights
  • guidance
  • tools and templates