Sustainable Strategic Public Procurement: Can the State Be a Role Model for Sustainable Consumption?
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
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With enough political will, governments can choose between many instruments like laws, internal regulations, financial incentives, information, and training to implement sustainable public procurement.

If we call for a structural shift toward economic practices that are more compatible with the environment and social aspects, we have to look closely at our habits.

A German key approach to simplify the procurement of goods and services is using quality labels: for 40 years, we have used the German eco-label “Blue Angel”.

This guest article is based on a key note address by Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany, during a side event at the 2018 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

It is my pleasure to welcome you all at the German side event at the 2018 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

Looking around in this room, I get the feeling many of you are representatives of public bodies.

By the way, how did you organize your trip?

Does your employer have sustainability guidelines for corporate travel?

Corporate travel costs are generally estimated to be the third largest controllable cost area after wages and IT. Spending this money based on sustainability criteria could support the innovative creation of sustainable travel solutions and boost fields as public transport, E-mobility, CO2 compensation, sustainable hotel industry or new ways of communication.

This side event will discuss how public procurement can offer the right market incentives for sustainable development. Such policies contribute to SDG 12 implementation, especially SDG 12.7. But public procurement can provide incentives for SDG implementation in many other sectors too, such as agriculture, energy or climate change, to mention a few.

Government agencies are large-scale consumers. In Germany, the public sector spends an estimated 300 billion euros a year on public procurement. This is approximately 11 per cent of German GDP.

This dimension clearly shows that public procurement can be used as a powerful instrument to implement sustainable consumption. The public sector has the power to provide incentives for market players to focus more on sustainability and to support the market of green products. Civil society expects the governments to be a role model with regard to sustainability, also in the area of public procurement. The public sector should take on this role in a credible way, especially when expecting the same from civil society. With enough political will, governments can choose between many instruments like laws, internal regulations, financial incentives, information, trainings etc. to implement sustainable public procurement.

The German Federal Government is aware of this task: The State Secretaries’ Committee for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 its “Programme of Sustainability Measures”.

The Programme is internally binding and outlines concrete steps to mainstream sustainability even more into administrative activities. Examples are quotas for the purchase of recycled paper (95%), sustainable textiles (50%) by 2020, and the use of a guide for the sustainable management of meetings and events. The key goal is to align public procurement even more with sustainability aspects. This should provide incentives for companies to ensure that social and ecological standards are complied with along the entire supply chain.

But there are challenges in Germany. Despite internal goals and political will, the practical implementation of sustainable procurement is complex. In addition to the Federal Government, there are some 30,000 public procurement bodies in Germany. And public tender procedures have to fulfil ambitious accountability and transparency requirements. Incorporating sustainability aspects into complex procurement contracts is not easy.

Employees have to be made aware of the changes in their work routine that will follow sustainable procurement decisions.

And there is also a social dimension we should not underestimate: staff who are responsible for procurement need clear regulations and have to be trained to handle complex sustainable procurement processes. But furthermore, employees have to be made aware of the changes in their work routine that will follow sustainable procurement decisions.

To pick up the example on corporate travel again: Obviously, it makes a difference for employees if they can use a corporate car or taxi to get to their meeting, or if they have to use public transport.

Or sustainable procurement in the building sector: It might cause a change in the atmospheric environment, indoor temperature or lightning conditions. And this could cause non-acceptance if awareness is not fostered.

Not all procurement areas touch these behavioural dimensions, but they might appear in certain areas. Therefore, this dimension should always be kept in mind and social acceptance should be actively fostered.

To be very clear: Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals – and in particular Goal 12 – needs a structural shift. And if we call for this structural shift toward economic practices that are more compatible with the environment and social aspects, we have to look closely at our dear habits. This is needed if we want change from a still widespread “business-as-usual” mode to true modernisation.

Despite all these challenges, there are many successful approaches around the world. A German key approach to simplify the procurement of goods and services is using quality labels. For 40 years, we have used the German eco-label “Blue Angel”. It is the most well-known environmental label for products in Germany.

The Blue Angel awards products and services that – from a holistic point of view – are of particular benefit to the environment and, at the same time, meet high standards of serviceability, health and safety. More than 12,000 products and services in around 120 product groups have been assessed in the 40 years of its existence.

In national public procurement guidelines, the Blue Angel is mentioned as the reference standard for various product groups, such as electrical devices like printers or copy machines, paper or furniture. Its broad recognition makes it easier for procurers to include products with the Blue Angel in their processes.

The Blue Angel has already entered the international stage. It cooperates with eco-labels in China and Japan. The goal is to achieve broad harmonisation of award criteria for the respective national labels and to support manufacturers in making applications. These efforts will make it easier for product manufacturers to apply for the eco-label in the respective partner country.

Another German approach I would like to highlight is the establishment of the German Competence Centre for Sustainable Procurement at the Procurement Office of the Federal Ministry of the Interior. It serves as a key advice and information centre for sustainable procurement to all procurers on the federal, regional or local level.

Additionally, it is responsible for integrating well-founded, practice-oriented knowledge on sustainable public procurement into the curricula of relevant educational and training institutions for public purchasers.

Let me close by highlighting three key findings to implement sustainable public procurement, based on the German experience:

  • First: political will! That’s key.
  • Second: awareness of all employees, from those working in procurement as well as those potentially affected.
  • And third: Build on transparent, ambitious and feasible criteria to reduce complexity in implementation.

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