Sustainable public procurement has hitherto been narrowly defined, and often disconnected from countries’ sustainability and development policies and strategies.
Public procurement influences markets, supply chains and society at large. Here is an example. The schools in your constituency need desks. Which kind of desks should be bought – or leased, or refurbished? Which kinds of suppliers are to be considered? These decisions influence who (which industries, which geographies, which populations, which generations) is to benefit from public procurement beyond its immediate utility. Deciding on refurbishing or upcycling instead of buying new desks would boost the service industry, which is in line with the most effective way of reducing the environmental footprint: reducing consumption. Choosing between wood, metal or plastic desks would feed into different supply chains. The choice made could benefit the forestry, mining or oil industries – each of which is challenged by particular technological, labour and environmental issues. Should the state procure from smaller enterprises or big companies? From a local social enterprise or a multinational business? From an ethnic minority-, black- or women-owned enterprise? Would it even matter? It would, if the state had a development plan and wanted to influence distribution of wealth and shared prosperity. Furthermore, who should be responsible for determining the correct destination for the desks, and the management of the end of their life? Post-consumption requirements are often neglected in public contracts, but these ultimately dictate if the process is part of a linear or a circular economy.
These considerations hold for small procurements as well as for ‘mega-infrastructure’ projects such as railways, ports, dams and bridges. According to recent estimates, the world’s annual public procurement spend is about $13 trillion, equivalent to one-sixth of global GDP. Evidently, procurement can be used by the state for strategic purposes.
Since the 1990s at least, sustainable public procurement (SPP) has been promoted as a means to meet the needs of governmental bodies and to generate benefits, not only to those bodies, but also to society, the economy and the environment. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promotes procurement practices that are sustainable in accordance with national policies and priorities, through its Target 12.7 on sustainable consumption and production. Target 12.7 is linked to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: ‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.’ This has created an opportunity for national as well as subnational governments to (re)consider how to mobilize their procurement powers in line with their own visions, policies and priorities. While progress towards Target 12.7 has not been formally monitored, by 2020 the UN had counted only 24 countries as having reported regulatory and legal instruments for sustainable consumption and production – 14 in the Global South and 10 in the Global North. Notably, there is considerable room for further take-up in sustainable consumption and production policies, including SPP. In fact, there is little precision as to what is meant by SPP. This allows for flexibility and for adapting to national and subnational contexts, but it has also led to varying definitions and interpretations, as well as to white- and ‘greenwashing’. Consequently, there is little clarity on how to effectively engage in public procurement for sustainable development.
There is little precision as to what is meant by SPP. Consequently, there is little clarity on how to effectively engage in public procurement for sustainable development.
On a positive note, according to several studies,,, SPP has been validated as an effective lever to drive innovation and sometimes to reduce negative impacts on the environment. However, such studies often use simplified lenses created by or for the private sector, and they rarely focus on the Global South. Indeed, most of the documented progress portrays ‘green’ procurement in Europe and across the Global North,, even if more than $6 trillion is spent annually in public procurement by countries of the Global South. Indeed, Global South countries demonstrate the largest share of public procurement relative to their GDP, with a median value of 13.4 per cent. This share is currently lower in the Asia-Pacific region, and higher in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. For instance, public procurement accounts for as little as 3 per cent of GDP in the Philippines, for 8.8 per cent in Papua New Guinea, and for as much as 21.4 per cent in Ecuador and 30 per cent in Indonesia. Although the global public procurement spend is worth $13 trillion per year, most of what is spent by states is not easily traced back to sustainability principles. However, there are instances where some sustainability principles are considered.
The SPP debate is traditionally framed within the concept of the triple bottom line (TBL), a business accounting framework. The TBL mantra of ‘people, planet and profit’ has limited the potential of sustainable procurement for the public sector. The concept of TBL is narrowly prescribed, and even John Elkington, who coined the term in the 1990s, now advocates its recall. Indeed, procurement practitioners have drawn attention to the fact that buying from smaller firms, locally, is an important aspect of sustainable procurement in the public sector. Ethics, culture, safety, diversity, inclusion, justice, human rights and the environment are additionally listed as important aspects of SPP.,,, Furthermore, most studies overlook the question of who gets to say what SPP is or should be, and often present ‘green procurement’ or ‘circular procurement’ as a synonym for ‘sustainable procurement’. While there is some overlap between these concepts and SPP, they are not synonymous. Alongside issues of political will and conceptualizations, another key problem affecting the take-up of SPP is that most officials see procurement simply as a means of acquiring goods and services at the minimum price possible. Sustainability and development are often beyond their remit or their capacities. In brief, SPP has been narrowly defined and is often disconnected from state policies and strategies.
In line with the SDGs, SPP should be devised in a way that makes sense to state policies and strategies, and this paper makes the case as to why states should adopt a comprehensive definition of SPP. Therefore, the question remains: how can state strategies and sustainability be combined in public procurement? And what would be the key elements of a comprehensive – and simultaneously flexible – framework for procurement for sustainable development? Citizens are becoming aware of the harmful and potentially irreversible consequences of environmental health and economic crises, and of the unbalanced distribution of costs and benefits of global development. And in response to global emergencies – exemplified by climate breakdown, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated crises – governments are embarking on a period of unparalleled demand for action and public expenditure. Robust principles of sustainability and development need to be at the heart of public procurement reforms and connected to state strategies, or unsustainable patterns of consumption and production will continue to be reproduced.
This paper argues that policy responses have to shift swiftly from poverty alleviation and the mitigation of negative impacts towards more ambitious responses that are aligned with the SDGs, such as the eradication of poverty and the promotion of equity, justice, well-being and positive impacts that benefit nature and people. Notably, ‘people’ refers to the many, not the few, and policy choices should be made not only for the indulgence of current generations in privileged geographies, but also for the benefit of future generations across the entire world.
Towards a comprehensive concept and a flexible framework
Acknowledging that procurement systems should accommodate the needs, wants and sovereignty of states and peoples, this paper introduces a concept and a framework to help in the placing of state strategies and priorities as the foundation for improvements in public procurement systems. Drawing on principles of sustainability, equity and development, and on the views of practitioners, policymakers and experts in the field, the proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development is presented in order to support policy analysis and policy research. To illustrate the practical application of this framework, this paper explores recent – and inspiring – state strategies and public procurement reforms in Papua New Guinea, Ecuador and Brazil. This paper also makes a contribution to debates about the power of public procurement to shape a future of shared prosperity: one that is a lever to ‘building back (or forward) better’, ‘the great reset’, or simply put, pathways to sustainability.
The paper proceeds as follows. Chapter 2 introduces insights from supply chain management, development economics and geography, and presents a definition of SPP and a proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development. The argument is: a) that the discourse positing that public procurement should minimize harm should be replaced by more ambitious and positive framings; and b) that development instruments and equity principles for sustainable development can be key in contributing to the advancement of the SPP agenda in both the Global South and the Global North. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 explore processes of change in Papua New Guinea, with its vision to become a global leader in sustainable development; in Ecuador, with its Buen Vivir national plan; and in Brazil, with its Food Acquisition Programme, which was linked to the Zero Hunger strategy. In each case, the analysis starts with an examination of the state strategy or priority (a vision, a policy, a programme or a state project), that is the foundation element of the framework. Practical recommendations are presented in Chapter 6 – drawing, inter alia, on consultations with policymakers and other experts. In conclusion, Chapter 7 emphasizes the need for a full appreciation of the diversity of development challenges and the complexity of sustainability in the study and practice of public procurement. This is critical if the trillions spent every year in public procurement are to be deployed in a way that best promotes better environmental stewardship, social equity and a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.