If we quantify the environmental performance of products, we can draw up sensible procurement rules to meet sustainability goals

There are three key buying powers in the world today: governments, corporates and citizens. Both government and corporate procurement teams are now making big buying decisions through tendering processes, based not just on price but also on the environmental and social facts surrounding a particular product or service.

The problem is that there is little or no transparency on the real social and environmental impacts of products and services, so buyers from government and the corporate world have to invest vast amounts of time and money developing lengthy and time-consuming sustainability questionnaires.

Often the focus of these is less on the most relevant impacts of the product or service and more on box-ticking, labels and certificates, which are pounced upon as some kind of proxy environmental assurance. However, full product transparency – which takes into account a product’s impact throughout its life – will enable public and B2B procurers to make informed choices based on real facts, while saving lots of time and money on the wasteful bureaucracy that is connected with form-filling.

Europe-wide criteria

According to the European commission white paper Public Procurement for a Better Environment, each year European public authorities spend up to 16% of the European Union’s GDP on products and services such as buildings, transport, cleaning services and food.

This amounts to about €2tn annually. That is massive by anyone’s standards. Imagine the transformational power that could be brought into being if this buying power was used to favour goods and services with lower impacts on the environment. Through their procurement policies, governments could make a significant contribution to the speedy development of a market for sustainable goods.

As in the car industry, new legislation can change the rules of the game dramatically, and regulation to introduce sustainability into government procurement would certainly do that. That’s why green public procurement (GPP) has been adopted, with targets set, in 21 member states.

Here are some EU figures. Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by 15m tonnes per year if the whole of the European Union adopted the same environmental criteria for lighting and electronic equipment as the city of Turku in Finland, where citizens have reduced electricity consumption by 50%. If the European public sector alone were to adopt the Danish environment ministry’s guidelines for cars, CO2 emissions would be cut by about 100,000 tonnes per year and fuel and operating costs by a third.

But if all cars operating in Europe met these standards, then CO2 emissions would be reduced by 220m tonnes, contributing significantly to the EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2020. This is an example of a simple yet very powerful and wide reaching action that could immediately reduce our negative impact on the planet by dramatically reducing emissions and pollution.

But, how to choose?

Imagine you are the person who’s been tasked to come up with criteria for buying green in a local council or a university. Your organisation is very committed to buy green and your task is very simple: some easy criteria to choose the right products to buy, from cars to pencils to carpet.

You go to a sustainability course and you listen to a geezer who is seemingly a sustainability guru and owns a private label. And your first thought is that you should ask for all the products your organisation buys that comply with that label. But after learning about how that guru is profiteering from that label and that the standards to achieve that label are very low, then you discharge that idea. After a long search you understand most labels have the same issue.

Then you ask a sustainability consultant to come up with a questionnaire to be sent to your suppliers and they come up with a 150-question document with questions such as “do you have ISO 14001?” or “do you sign with the Global Compact?”. Your first thought is that 150 questions might be too much for the pencil supplier. And you end up realising that ticking boxes or having more or fewer certificates and signing to meaningless commitments is not correlated to the environmental impact of the product you are buying.

Then you ask your suppliers directly to give you information about the product you are buying. But none of them is giving you full transparency. They are all providing you with biased information, funny labels and some half-truths.

Then when buying a car, you realise that it’s all about gCO2/km and you come up with the right policy of limiting the purchasing of cars to those under 120g. And you communicate to suppliers that every year you intend to decrease that figure.

But there is no magic metric or guidance on what products to buy.

Good guidance

Perhaps the government would have some guidance? Yes, you find a leaflet on green procurement from the EU. But you discover how little help the guide offers. All you can find are vague phrases saying that procurement teams should “take into account energy consumption and emissions”. Or that they should consult the TC/CEN 350 standard, or that they should follow the self-serving advice of choosing products with an EU Ecolabel.

Wouldn’t it be easier for the EU just to say something like “choose cars with less than 120gCO2/km”? Everybody understands that metric, all manufacturers now provide figures, and it’s an easy piece of advice on which to base decisions.

That’s the beauty of full product transparency. It helps people to make decisions based on easily understandable magic metrics rather than requiring purchasers to have PhDs in environmental science in order to buy a piece of furniture for the office.

The old way was to link public procurement to eco-labels, which is unhelpful because it shifts decisions about what is green on to third-party private intermediaries, some of whom are certification sharks. Private labels are made to earn money and tend to lower their standards so as to get as many clients on board as quickly as possible. And the popularity of such labels has more to do with clever marketing than actual performance-based environmental criteria.

Government-owned labels are not much better. In the EU, green public procurement documents suggest the following as an example of good practice: “By 2015 all cleaning services should use products meeting the EU Ecolabel criteria.” However, are technocrats in Brussels the best people to design good criteria for cleaning products? When you look at the current EU Ecolabels, you can see the fingerprints of the lobbyists all over them. For example, the European Ecolabel for flooring products was developed in Italy, and it’s therefore no surprise that the criteria are more favourable to ceramic flooring (where Italy is strong) than for carpets (a more Northern European-focused industry).

Other targets are not much better. At first sight the EU sets a seemingly commendable one for schools, saying that “50% of meals served in school canteens should be organic by 2013”’. But is organic really the key issue or solution for the food industry? What about land use, soil protection, loss of biodiversity and water use? Sometimes certain targets – such as this one – appear to be created purely because they are easy to measure and certify. Doing the real work on discovering the true impacts of products and services is far more difficult than setting a binary target.

Process certification? Worse!

Public procurement based on process certifications such as ISO14001 is even worse. ISO 14001 only guarantees that you have a process for complying with legislation, coupled with a process to deliver continuous improvement on that position. It does not set performance criteria or outputs. It does not guarantee any environmental product performance.

The main focus is upon the organisation and how it operates, not on the products it offers – how they are designed, how they perform, and how they are disposed of or reused. Yet ISO14001 is used all over the place by public procurers because they lack product-related magic metrics and they have to rely on something. In desperation, ISO14001 is an easy lifebelt to hold on to. The Estonian environment ministry, for instance, tendered for cleaning services in 2010 and included the following in its technical environmental specifications:

  • cleaning services to be delivered in accordance with ISO14001 or equivalent;
  • all plastic bags must be biodegradable;
  • waste shall be sorted (packaging, organic waste, etc);
  • toilet paper and hand towels shall be made from recycled paper.

The funny thing is that this tendering process is presented by the EU green public procurement handbook as an example of good practice. But it’s not. Rather than looking at the biggest impacts of cleaning products – such as the toxic chemicals used within them – the ministry has rushed in to gather together a set of criteria that are easy to find and implement.

The result: a set of useless touch-points that fail to address the bigger issues. Estonia’s criteria make no mention of the use of chemicals, or of energy efficiency, or of cleaning equipment. If you create green criteria using brainstorming sessions of unqualified civil servants rather than impartial product specialists, then this is the result.

Metrics that matter

The use of “magic metrics” is a far more effective way to develop decision-making and buying criteria. We don’t need guidance, labels and handbooks. We need metrics that are specifically related to the products and services that are being bought – metrics that can be used by all countries, that encourage transparency, foster competition on sustainability, stimulate innovation, and offer a simple framework for making important buying decisions.

In such a magic metrics approach it’s much more difficult for an industry lobby to defend their position than tinkering with qualitative criteria and exceptions. Transparent metrics also reassure the consumers and buyers at all levels.

With eco-labels, you are asking consumers to trust the label, with metrics you are empowering them to make a decision based on facts instead of patronising statements. The car industry has shown that this can work, so just think what it could be like in other areas.

Imagine the change that could be brought about if we had a world where policies something like the following were put in practice:

  • A local council specifies that it will only use taxis that operate on less than 120gCO2/km.
  • The national federations of local councils commit to buy only street lighting for their hospitals and centres on the top 10% performance of the metric gCO2/lumen.
  • A university states that it will only buy cleaning products that are free of certain chemicals.
  • A government department looking for new offices specifies that it will only consider buildings with energy requirements that result in less than 20kWh/m2 for heating and cooling needs.
  • A government department chooses a preferred airline based on kgCO2/passenger/mile.
  • A defence ministry stipulates that it will only buy trucks based on performance on kgCO2 per tonne-km and NOx emissions.
  • Council social housing contracts are awarded with two criteria being kgCO2 embodied in raw materials and heating and cooling efficiency.
  • Hand drying facilities for toilets in public spaces are awarded based on gCO2 and water use per dry.

These scenarios and others like them are easy to achieve, and not that expensive to arrive at. We just need to make the decision to go there now.

Ramon Arratia is sustainability director at Interface, a position he has also occupied at Vodafone and Ericsson. This article draws on his new book Full Product Transparency (Dō Sustainability, 2012). Order this book and others in the Dō Shorts series. Ethical Corporation readers can save 5% with code EC5.

communications  environmental performance  Ramon Arratia  reporting  transparency 

comments powered by Disqus