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Exploring the challenges and rewards of sustainable public procurement

Lina Wedin Hansson, Lund University Researcher at the Department of Sociology of Law, explains barriers, drivers, and trends of ‘green’ procurement.
byggande Malmö

Sustainable public procurement is essentially when a governmental organisation consciously decides to purchase sustainable, or environmental-friendly alternatives. This practice can apply to products, services, projects, and other purchases or investments. The European Commission states that, Sustainable Public Procurement is a process by which public authorities seek to achieve the appropriate balance between the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental - when procuring goods, services or works at all stages of a project.

Kick-start new sustainable trends

Lina Wedin Hansson

The idea is that public entities can kick-start new investments and trends supporting sustainability. This practice will simultaneously divest purchases from less environmentally friendly choices and guide other sectors.

Sustainable public procurement can also help display the benefits of investing in sustainable choices, thus providing a guide for other governments at municipal, regional, and federal levels. Despite recent progress, there are still many perceived barriers.

Myths on public procurement

Lina states that, “Sweden is one of the top countries in the world. The Netherlands and Japan are two other standard-setting examples.” Unfortunately, there are still several myths and barriers regarding sustainable public procurement. Lina comments that people often believe, “The legal framework is too complex, there are not enough suppliers of sustainable goods or services, and it is too expensive.”

“Another principal obstacle is the lack of holistic thinking and strategy within the procuring authorities. Political goals towards sustainable development (e.g., fossil-free fuels) must be linked to strategic plans and documents, to knowledge and to a mature procuring authority. A mature procuring authority is one that has the entire organisation involved in the strategic procurement process,” adds Wedin Hansson.

Networking is essential

It is also important for different governments and actors in the public sector to share best practices of sustainable public procurement.

Lina recommends the “Use of existing networks and resources, e.g. ICLEI or OECD globally, EU GPP at European level and the public procurement authority in Sweden.”

Motivation for public procurement

Various rewards and reasons motivate sustainable public procurement. The main drivers, as Lina calls them, for sustainable public procurement are:

  • an increasing demand from the public

  • heightened awareness of the advantages with being a forerunner amongst private companies

  • an increased awareness of the costs of not taking socioeconomic and environmental consequences into consideration.

One might also ask: Since cities and countries vary greatly in wealth, geography, and population, how can unique and effective sustainable public procurement practices be developed?

Lina states that, “By examining and making an inventory in the specific country or city on the main challenges regarding a sustainable development and focusing on the lowest hanging fruits first. These challenges can be pollution, floods, lack of biodiversity, heat waves, segregation, etc. Target them, measure impact before and after, document the effects and follow-up the procurement as well as the sustainability effects.”

Lina concludes that this way the case for more sustainable public procurement is built towards the decision-makers on the lower hanging fruits.

Backsippans förskola
The municipality of Ronneby is in the frontline in Sweden and has been inspired by the Cradle to Cradle-concept. Backsippans förskola was built two years ago and has attracted much attention. Photo: Press relase from Sunda Hus 2014

A strategic tool for circular economy

Public procurement can help advance towards a circular economy by establishing markets for new products and new business-models. “It can also enable the market finding solutions for a more resource-efficient society and encourage the market itself to transition also, e.g. by suppliers influencing sub-contractors and competitors,” comments Lina.

In her recent workshop in Lund on May 24 2016, Lina focused on the role of public procurement to further circular resource models, learning from good examples and a holistic perspective on public procurement as a strategic tool to support sustainable development through circular resource models. Reed more about the conference (in Swedish)

Several research projects

Lina is is also involved with numerous research projects (outlined below).

  1. “Green innovations in construction – investigating the regulatory space for sustainable solutions in the construction sector,” funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences in collaboration with Skanska Sweden AB and affiliation with Sociology of Law Department, Lund University, in a postdoctoral research project called Flexit.

  2. “Collaboration and sustainability considerations in the construction public procurement process.” Financed by Formas and the City of Malmö. Co-researcher is Susanna Johansson at the School of Social Work, LU.

  3. “Procurement for Sustainable Innovation in the Built Environment.” I am one of 11 researchers from universities from all over Sweden studying this area from a trans-disciplinary perspective. It is also financed by Formas.

Text: Jack Fraser, a student journalist at Sustainability Forum and a master student at iiiee, Lund University.

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