The theme of this year’s Earth Day on the 22nd of April, Restore our Earth, is a challenge to leaders across the globe to rebuild an economic system that prioritises the environment. To support efforts to rise to this challenge, ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, are working with public authorities around the world to leverage public spend to create environmental and societal value. We spoke to Josefine Hintz, Officer of Global Initiatives Sustainable, Innovation and Circular Procurement at ICLEI about how they see the challenge ahead and how a renewed approach to responsible procurement can contribute to preventing climate change and environmental destruction.
‘Procurement has impact – make it count’ – this simple approach is how I looked at the topic when I started my work on sustainable procurement at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. Essentially, it means that public authorities around the world are purchasing products and services in any case. Why not make that purchase in ways that support a fairer, healthier, equal and environmentally thriving world?
The goal of creating environmental impact by making changes to existing purchasing activities is clear, but Josefine explains that making those changes can be much more complicated due to the nature of most supply chains;
Supply-chains are tricky because of their complexity; spanning the globe with a multitude of actors and fast-moving processes. Often that complexity is used as an excuse to not take responsibility but instead to forward it to others such as the demand side. At ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, we work with a growing number of ambitious public buyers that push for more innovative and sustainably sourced products. Procurement is increasingly seen as a tool to create positive impact across the entire value-chain. There are a lot of issues such as worker’s safety, child labour or fair wages that can be addressed through criteria, requirements or contract clauses. However, due to the complexity of for instance the electronics supply chain it is unlikely to bring change single-handedly...
Josefine highlights collaboration between all those involved as central to dealing with the many layers of difficulty that can arise in making a supply chain more responsible; I think this obstacle calls for increased collaboration between buyers to pool demand and work together with ambitious yet harmonised criteria. Drawing from my experience of organising fruitful market engagement events, I believe that responsible supply-chains need continuous, action-oriented dialogue. It is key to bring together the different voices of supply and demand to exchange and establish pathways benefitting workers and the environment. It motivates me to work in a complex field that can really only thrive when people collaborate. For example, staff from the procurement unit have to work together with staff from the sustainability and legal team and, depending on the aim, with experts on gender mainstreaming, circular economy or climate resilience.
The effectiveness of prioritising collaborations is exemplified by Josefine’s involvement with a group involving multiple stakeholders and experts from across several cities that aimed to explore an approach to ensuring the purchasing of smartphones involves ethical and sustainable supply chains;
I worked with a group of public procurers, sustainability advisors and IT experts (all female) across six Nordic cities on the topic of fair, circular smartphones. Together we organised the Nordic Forum for Market Dialogue, an online event that brought together key industry representatives and public buyers from across Europe. We launched a joint statement of demand for circular, fair smartphones, with nine points detailing the vision towards 2025. The statement remains open for other public buyers to sign on to it. You can find out more about it here.
Once changes have been advised and implemented, there can be immediate effects on people as well as the planet. 2020 brought a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion and this creates questions about responsible procurement that are not simply relating to the environment. We asked Josefine how we can make earth-conscious procurement more diverse?
I think the answer starts by framing sustainable procurement as a tool that is not only about preventing environmental harm but also about leveraging fair, safe and healthy working conditions, creating access to the market for women-led SMEs or enabling training and skill building of the local workforce as part of the renewable energy transition. More and more public authorities are seizing this opportunity to create environmental as well as societal value. On another note, I am curious to look deeper into how citizens’ voices can be included in procurement decision-making. Public participation regarding how tax money is spent might be an exciting next step towards diversity and inclusion.
Renewed public pressure for change is causing organisations in the public and private sector to address societal and environmental issues in their supply chains but the road ahead is long and arduous. Josefine has hope but recognises the challenge, not least because of the change to deep-rooted systems that will need to be addressed; Responsible supply-chains require change at the very foundations of the dominant capitalist system – if the lowest price remains the deciding factor we as humans will continue to pay a high social and environmental cost. Working together, we need to build an economic system that is based on transparency, accountability, planetary health and responsible use of resources. I see that sustainable procurement is gaining momentum, but at the same time we have a long way to go. I hope that soon we will be able to measure and track the actual impact of responsible purchasing. Because if measures taken are not effectively saving lives or improving working conditions, we need to know and adjust accordingly.
My hope is that more public authorities realise the tremendous power of sustainable procurement: institutionalising and operationalising sustainability ambitions. For the future, I wish that more and more public authorities like universities, national and local governments, hospitals or schools get access and build capacity to use their purchasing power for good.
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