Mar 31 2014

Towards sustainable public procurement

Jon EmmettLSE won an award last week for buying Fairtrade cotton uniforms for its Estates staff and contractors.  Attending an EU ethical procurement conference to collect the trophy, Jon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, had the opportunity to learn from how others are addressing this issue around the world. 

The European Fair Cotton Procurement Awards

LSE was delighted to win a European Fair Cotton Procurement Award on 28 March.  The School was recognised for its sector-leading role in buying Fairtrade cotton uniforms for its Estates staff and contractors, whilst explicitly linking this with its commitment to being a London Living Wage employer.  Fairtrade cotton goods are also stocked in the SU shop.

This was great news for LSE, and especially the Estates Division.  But what was most interesting from a personal perspective was the opportunity to find out more about what people around Europe and across the world are doing to tackle the many challenges of ethical buying in the public sector.

Fair Cotton awards - Mar 2014

Award winners

The French Postal Service won an award for sourcing 100% of their T-shirts and 40% of work-wear from Fairtrade cotton.  But more importantly, they have also established a direct and mutually beneficial partnership with the cotton growers in Mali, who have been on exchange visits to France;  likewise, French posties have visited Mali where they met the local cotton growing co-op, and helped build a school there.  In fact it was the Solobamady Keita, the General Secretary of the National Union of Cotton Producers’ Cooperative Societies of Mali, who presented the awards.

Other award winners included the City of Paris, for providing one third of its uniformed workers with Fairtrade cotton uniforms.  (Click here for a case study.)  The French region of Brittany was highly commended for its framework of decentralised cooperation with the producers and suppliers from the West African Economic and Monetary Union.


The awards ceremony was the finale of a one-day conference held in Bremen, Germany, on “Moving Towards Socially Responsible Public Procurement”.  Bremen was an apt location for the event.  Not merely a Fairtrade city, it’s known as the ‘Capital of Fairtrade’.  It has well-established renewable energy networks, and while the broad streets of the city centre bustled with people, trams and bikes, there wasn’t a car in sight.

Bremen street

Look mum, no cars!

Wandering around the town in the evening after the conference, I was struck by how beautiful it was:  centuries-old eccentric architecture, the peculiar statues, winding cobbled alleys.  The quaint serenity of bikes outnumbering motor vehicles.  But it was also intriguing to see how the city has adapted to thrive in modern times.  The building hosting the conference appeared ancient on the outside, but the interior had been refurbished to accommodate a modern, light and airy venue.

Science Museum:  Where does our energy come from?

Science Museum: Where does our energy come from?

The ground floor housed a science museum – the ‘Haus der Wissenschaft’ – which was dedicated to presenting a hopeful vision of what science can offer the future, with displays on renewable energy, efficient waste disposal, and designing green cities.  (A far cry from the ‘bombs and oil’ version of science and engineering that often seems to dominate mainstream UK discourse.)


Science Museum:  Interactive waste disposal game

Science Museum: Interactive waste disposal game

The four musicians, and singing from the same hymn sheet

Bremen is also known for the ‘Four Musicians of Bremen’ folk tale.  Long story short:  a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster – pictured below – are near the end of their productive lives on their respective farms.   Each leaves to find a better life as a musician.  They all meet by chance, and stumble across some burglars ransacking a house.  The four animals stand on top of each other outside the window, and sing for the burglars in the hope of earning some supper.  Instead, the burglars are terrified by the strange monster they see (part donkey, part dog, etc), and flee.  Having foiled the burglars, the animals live happily ever after in the house.

Although the humour in this story derives from the accidental nature of the ‘cooperation’ between the four ‘musicians’, I propose a (possibly tenuous) connection between the collaboration among the four animals in the story, and the collaboration needed to address ethical procurement, which I noticed was a strand running throughout the day.

The four musicians of Bremen

The four musicians of Bremen

The conference

The conference itself was held in partnership between two EU-funded projects:  Landmark, which advocates ethical public purchasing, and ‘Cotton On to Fairtrade Procurement’, a Fairtrade cotton campaign by the EU Fairtrade Advocacy Office.  Below are some of my highlights.

An inspiring session was presented jointly by the French Postal Service and the Mali National Union of Cotton Producers’ Cooperative Societies.  They spoke about the partnership mentioned above which saw the exchange of goods, services, visits and respect between workers in France and Mali.

UK student campaign group People and Planet spoke about their new Electronics Watch project, which researches the often poor working conditions in the manufacture of IT equipment.  A leader from the Bremen municipality responded by explaining a partnership between Bremen, Hamburg and other German regional authorities who have created a joint ICT procurement contract worth €millions, which is big enough to place demands on even major suppliers that they abide by labour welfare standards.

An ethics auditor from Bangalore gave a fascinating insight into the challenges faced on the ground by those monitoring workers’ rights in the cotton supply chain in India.  Dr Binay Choudhury discussed the difficulties of ensuring transparency, and the need to understand the cultural context of who and what you’re auditing.  He also addressed the risk that even audits aren’t fool-proof, noting that a Bangladeshi garment factory was destroyed by fire in 2012 killing over 100 workers, only days after (possibly bribed) auditors said it was safe.

A Swiss procurement expert introduced a dizzyingly rich resource that maps different tools to assess ethical footprint of goods and services.  An informative but somewhat dry session from an expert on EU procurement law was immediately followed, without introduction or explanation, by a dance performance by an interpretive mime duo.  I don’t know what their short play symbolised, and I suspect I never shall – though I guess it had something to do with ethical manufacturing… maybe.

Group discussions on the barriers to sustainable procurement revealed some interesting findings.  For example, devolved and convoluted procurement processes, coupled with a lack of joined-up management, are a key scourge facing green procurement right across the UK public sector.  But when I mentioned this, colleagues from Germany and Lithuania looked at me in disbelief – how could it be that UK local government isn’t a model of well-coordinated efficiency?  Meanwhile, their main challenge was a general lack of awareness and skills among public procurement staff – which is far less of an issue in the UK, though still relevant.

Barriers and solutions to ethical buying

Throughout the conference, it emerged that many attendees shared very similar barriers to implementing ethical procurement – despite our diverse institutions, backgrounds, geographical locations and cultural contexts.  Chief among these were:

  • time
  • expertise
  • cost
  • reliable supplier monitoring info
  • supplier and product availability.

Busy procurement teams rarely have sufficient time and resources to research the green credentials of individual suppliers, let alone the whole supply chains for each product / service they buy.  This could be alleviated by the growing availability of mapping and comparison tools, but will nevertheless be a slow process.  On the bright side, the slowness of this journey presents the opportunity to foster improved supply chain relationships over long periods of time, perhaps boosting cooperation to navigate the demands of the burgeoning green economy.

Many procurement professionals said they lack sufficient specialist knowledge to make well-informed decisions on buying sustainably.  This can be resolved with training, which thankfully is becoming increasingly widely available.  However the cost of training staff is an investment that many institutions struggle to afford in the current economic climate, despite the potential long-term financial benefits of doing so.

Ethically sourced goods often come with a higher price tag, through paying employees a decent wage, verification schemes and other factors.  However, the long-term inter-linked impacts on human rights, international security, the global economy and the environment, and hence ultimately institutional finances, must surely start to make a case that this short-termist thinking will not be viable forever.  In the meantime though, it’s still tough to make this case.

Reliable monitoring is a challenge, as mentioned above by Dr Choudhury.  Labelling schemes with their attendant auditing regimes are a good start, but can’t be expected to be perfect.  Nor can any single label give assurances about every area of sustainability – workers’ rights, environmental impact, etc.  Improved transparency combined with thorough engagement throughout the supply chain are key to addressing this issue, but this again will be a slow process.

Good news:  one barrier that will soon cease to exist is legal.  EU law currently bans public sector organisations from specifying Fairtrade and ‘eco’ products in tenders, and several public bodies have been successfully sued for doing so, notably including the Dutch province of North Holland.  (Apparently it’s deemed ‘anti-competitive’.)  Happily this law has now been changed, and public contracts will be allowed to feature sustainability requirements from late 2014.

Availability, flexibility and the case of the Polish mice

Many institutions have found it difficult to source suppliers and contractors that have the sustainability expertise, or the availability of ethical products, to meet the needs of large public sector contracts.  ‘Green’ suppliers are frequently SMEs offering niche products.  This can mean that they are not well established, which can present a continuity risk for public service providers that need to rely on stable long-term contracts.  It can also mean that ‘eco’ goods are available in small quantities, or in limited ranges.  (For example, LSE’s Fairtrade cotton uniform supplier can provide us with polo shirts, but not overalls.)  This in turn can lead to erratic or poor product quality, which often engenders the false belief that ethical and sustainable goods are inherently of inferior quality.

I had a thought-provoking conversation with someone called Grzegorz from a Polish NGO advocating ethical procurement, Centrum CSR Foundation.  He works with People & Planet on their Electronic Watch campaign (see above), and told me he can source computer mice from 90% ethical sources.  Did I want to sample them, or recommend them to the relevant IT procurement manager back at LSE?  Despite having spent a whole day discussing how to overcome challenges, and despite my personal convictions, my response was full of the reasons it wouldn’t work.

“The IT team buy using big framework contracts.  They only use suppliers approved by the London Universities Purchasing Consortium.  They won’t want to fiddle around using up valuable staff time to buy a small number of niche accessories, they’ll want to buy all machines and accessories on a single contract.  How do we know this new product is reliable, if no other large consumers tested it over several years?”  And so on.  Grzegorz didn’t get it – why had I bothered coming to this conference if I was just going to tell him that I wanted to carry on using the same unsustainable suppliers, processes and excuses?

There are good reasons that large public bodies have robust rules about how they buy stuff.  It can maximise efficiency, helps prevent corruption, and more.  This can make them frustratingly inflexible at times.  But maybe we can use the root causes of this inflexibility – long-term thinking and high volumes of consumption – to our advantage.

Public sector institutions should collaborate to incorporate ethical and sustainability criteria into large framework contracts, to stimulate demand and build up resilient, ethical supply chains, that continue to deliver the goods and services we need over the uncertain decades ahead.  A lot of excellent work is already going on with public purchasing consortia, and sustainability and procurement professionals must work together to build on this.


I took away a huge amount from the Landmark conference, and feel privileged to have participated and shared insights and possibilities with colleagues from across the globe.

But things aren’t ideal.  The Swiss procurement tool, which most in institutions I know aren’t yet advance enough to utilise, revealed how far behind we are in the UK.  Costs, lack of available supply and other organisational factors continue to inhibit uptake of ethical products among buyers.

Many would even question whether changing what we buy is missing the point altogether, arguing that the global economic system always drives down production costs at the expense of people, communities and the environment, meaning that ethical purchasing can only ever be a niche sop to an anomalous minority of those who can afford to care.

But I still think there are reasons to be optimistic.  The change in EU law to allow ‘eco’ tenders demonstrates that sufficient demand for ethical practices can move beyond business contracts into the cultural arena, and ultimately effect legal and policy changes.  The case of the French Postal Service partnership with the Malian cotton farmers is living proof of the possibility for trade relationships that are built on that mutual benefits and respect, instead of exploitation.  The collaboration of buying consortia from London to Hamburg shows the power to successfully demand better practice from even major manufacturers.


Although the purchases of a single university may be a drop in the ocean of the global supply chain, there are signs that if we work together – and talk about it while we do so – we can build the growing and urgent global demand for ethical and sustainable economy, in the supply chain and beyond.

This entry was posted in Behaviour change, Ethical purchasing, Green economy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Towards sustainable public procurement

  1. Victoria Hands says:

    I really enjoyed reading your account, thank you. Congratulations on the LSE award – how can other universities in London adapt a similar uniform procurement? I assume you were able to achieve more or less price parity? Can we invite the people you worked with to the LUEG AGM? It is a small step in terms of total procurement and a very important one which clearly shows the intention and direction of travel!

  2. Jon Emmett says:

    Thanks Victoria! We didn’t achieve price parity, but LSE’s Director of Estates made a decision that this was the right thing to do.

    I hope in future universities will be able to use the enhanced purchasing power of large collective tenders to include ethical requirements in framework contracts. This will both bring down prices and facilitate the spread of sustainable procurement, albeit incrementally.

    And yes, let’s definitely invite the organisers to the LUEG AGM!

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