Greener government

Dr Clare Poulter, deputy chief executive of OGCbuying.solutions and chair of the Cross Government Sustainable Procurement Group explains government procurement policy

To understand what we mean by green procurement we need to refer back to the government's policy for sustainable development. "Protection for the environment" is one of the four planks of this strategy alongside "prudent use of natural resources", "social progress for everyone" and "stable economic growth and employment".

The question therefore should really be: what do we mean by sustainable procurement? And the answer is, that we need to look at all the goods and services we buy to support the goals and processes of our own organisation in the light of these four objectives. Sustainable procurement is a whole lot more than buying some energy efficient light bulbs. It's also clear that it isn't something that is done just by procurement professionals or within buying departments. Doing any procurement well means looking at the whole process from start to finish.

It begins when someone in the organisation realises that they need something beyond internal resources. What would be the implications for sustainable development in delivering that requirement in a number of different ways? What are the potential impacts of the procurement, not just in meeting the immediate requirement but in terms of the impact on the people who make whatever we want to buy; where we buy it from; the materials used?

What happens when the product is disposed of, or the contract is completed? What about reusing something we already have? Recycled materials? Do we really need to meet the full requirement with new product? Can we re-engineer our processes so that we use less in the first place?

The most scope to consider sustainability

All these questions can and should be asked before any tendering or other traditional procurement activity takes place. As the joint OGC/DEFRA guidance on green procurement makes clear, this early stage offers the most scope to consider sustainability requirements and build them into the statement of specification - what it is that we want. Preparing and publicising this guidance, which explains in detail how green purchasing fits with the EU procurement regulations and the Treasury policies on value for money, has been an important starting point for OGC's contribution to encouraging sustainable procurement.

It will be followed in the next few months with a companion set of guidance on incorporating so-called social issues in procurement. This will give a more rounded and comprehensive approach to sustainability. OGC has an important and topical role in implementing the Efficiency Review recommendations. The way this is being done shows that thinking about many aspects of sustainability is starting to become embedded in the development of major changes in the public sector. Issues such as the importance of local and regional markets, the SME agenda and diversity, and the long-term impacts of procurement are all high on the agenda.

Excellence in construction

OGC's property and construction experts are heavily involved in providing guidance for the public sector on achieving excellence in construction and have produced a publication, Achieving Sustainability in Construction Procurement. The Achieving Excellence in Construction Initiative was launched in March 1999 by the chief secretary to the Treasury, to improve the performance of central government departments, executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies as clients of the construction industry. It put in place a strategy for sustained improvement in construction procurement performance and in the value for money achieved by government on construction projects, including those involving maintenance and refurbishment.

New guidance notes are due to be published shortly, which will appear on the OGC website. Achieving Excellence in Construction Procurement Guide 11: Sustainability AE11 seeks to increase the understanding of sustainable construction issues for public sector procurers and provides them with a structured approach to the procurement and delivery of projects that deliver sustainable construction. The guide will lead the government client through the construction project lifecycle, identifying sustainable considerations at each of the key decision making stages and will include advice on monitoring and assessing both targets and projects.

Identifying and accessing green products

Meanwhile, OGC's executive agency, OGCbuying.solutions, has been working on practical measures to make it easier for public sector buyers to identify and access green and innovative products at attractive and competitive prices. The Quick Wins list of energy efficient products mentioned in the Energy White Paper can be sourced through OGCbuying.solutions pre-tendered framework agreements by anyone in the public sector. The Agency has also played a leading part in implementing the government's procurement policies on green electricity and sustainable timber. OGCbuying.solutions welcomes any suggestions on how they should develop this service to customers further, and in particular how the website can be developed.

Pursuing whole life costing

The single most important thing which buyers can do is to ensure that they genuinely pursue whole life costing when assessing purchase options. This will ensure that not only initial purchase price but also cost of use (for example energy consumption) durability and cost of disposal are fully taken into account. Experience shows that the business case for the environmentally friendly option can often be easily made.

As well as the factors relevant to the product itself, think about the internal costs of ownership. For example, many solvent-based paints are classed as hazardous materials, and need to be tracked and documented at considerable administrative expense.

Spreading the word

Many things are changing in public sector procurement. Spending on recycled goods has risen sharply in London - and two thirds of this is due to public sector organisations. Of course there are barriers. The greatest of these is probably simply ignorance. There are many thousands of buying organisations in the public sector, and most of these have more than one buyer!

So spreading the word is not straightforward. Many people still have not understood that sustainable development is no longer a fringe interest but a major government policy. Change in procurement practice comes not just from procurement people talking to each other, but from a wider recognition among specifiers and users of bought-in goods and services that the sustainability implications need to be taken seriously.


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