At least 56 countries are buying green: What this means

Government agencies buy a lot of products and services. In some countries, up to 30 percent of GDP is due to government spending, according to the World Bank. What would happen if these agencies matched their sustainable development commitments to their actual spending?

Sustainable public purchasing has been around as a topic for some time, but there has been a recent uptick in interest and activity. We were curious as to how many national governments are actually pursing sustainable purchasing policies, and to what degree are those policies being implemented? We wondered what awakening the sleeping giant of purchasing means for industry and other stakeholders such as certifiers, and if it is going as planned.

A major study released by United Nations Environment Programme (available as a PDF download here), found that by the end of 2012, at least 56 countries had adopted a national sustainable public purchasing (SPP) or green public purchasing (GPP) program in some form, and several others were developing them.

To arrive at this data point, a team of researchers (including myself) triangulated information and data from existing literature, interviews, case studies of six countries and a survey of over 273 people expert in SPP/GPP from 92 countries. We look at the progress national governments have made in sustainable purchasing the past five years, what they are currently working on, the challenges they are facing and what may be expected in the coming five years.

A problem emerges when you do any kind of broad-based international study: How to compare disparate activities in any meaningful way? We developed an analytical framework of the types of policies, activities and indicators for SPP/GPP to capture and analyse the trends and the current state of play.

Given the different ways in which policy and purchasing is organized by governments, it was not terribly surprising to find that national SPP/GPP policies take different forms. There are national action plans, executive orders, decrees, or sustainability-related requirements embedded within national procurement policies and regulations.

What was surprising was just how geographically diverse this group turned out to be. We expected to hear about Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, of course, but we really didn’t expect to see so many countries in Africa and Latin America pursuing this also.

The finding of diverse approaches and requirements is further confirmed by a database we are developing at DEKRA Sustainability that tracks and analyzes over 1,000 sustainable purchasing guidelines for products and services. Initial analysis of some key product categories that purchasers focus on, such as paper and office products, indicate substantial divergence and a lack of cohesion in even basic definitions and terminology.

For those companies supplying these large and powerful buying organizations (and in turn, their suppliers), and especially those companies selling in multiple markets, the diversity of approaches found is a giant headache. There are such different definitions of what is sustainable, different requirements in terms of how to prove it and different approaches to ensuring that purchasers actually follow the guidelines and make sustainability an important part of the purchasing process.

Matching the policies to the actual requests for proposals received is also data intensive. There are clear signals that companies that invest in understanding and then meeting their customer requirements proactively will find competitive advantage. They also will be able to help shape the space as it evolves.

Clearly, greater coordination and collaboration is needed. Two organizations that I have served are working on exactly this. UNEP itself is working with national governments on the Sustainable Public Purchasing Initiative (SPPI) to encourage greater uptake of SPP and to promote worldwide implementation of SPP/GPP through increased cooperation between key stakeholders and a better understanding of its benefits and impacts.

In the United States, the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council (SPLC) is bringing together industry, government, NGOs and other key stakeholders such as ecolabels and certification bodies to create a common approach and leadership recognition system for sustainable purchasing. Both initiatives are new, coordinating their work with each other and with existing initiatives such as ICLEI’s Procura+ and the Responsible Purchasing Network. They are both looking for partners to further their mission.

The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council and UNEP will host a free public webinar to present the report’s findings at 9.30 am ET March 7.

Top image by Diablophotos via Shutterstock