An appreciation of complexity in the study and practice of procurement for sustainable development needs to be at the heart of recovery plans, new deals and development strategies.
Solving the puzzle
Returning to the matter of procuring desks for an office or for hundreds of thousands of students, and the questions that are commonly posed in such a scenario (which kind of desks should be bought, leased, or refurbished, and which kinds of suppliers are to be considered), the answer this paper provides may sound disappointing, since in both cases it is: ‘it depends’. If encouraging the local forestry industry is part of the state strategy, it would make sense to procure desks made of wood. Likewise, if encouraging the oil industry is strategic, purchasing plastic – or plastic lumber – desks would make more sense. Of course, there are several alternatives, but these two options will suffice for illustration purposes. Several states have been supporting oil industries, which is linked to a sevenfold growth in plastics production between 1976 and 2015. Meanwhile, the production of industrial roundwood, which received less support from producer states, grew by 1.3 times. Not surprisingly, with such high levels of indirect subsidies, plastics have displaced materials such as wood. However, both industries have been associated with detrimental impacts on jobs, land, climate and livelihoods.,, Although plastic is recyclable, only around 9 per cent of it has been recycled to date; most of it accumulates in landfill or in the natural environment – for example, in the world’s oceans. Besides, recycling capacity is not widely available. Wood, although more easily biodegraded than plastics (if not contaminated by synthetic bindings), can be linked to deforestation, biodiversity loss, social conflicts and poor labour standards – when sourced and processed without care. The low price of plastics and illegal timber fail to reflect their costs in terms of environmental damage and well-being., Any procurement decision, therefore, has wide-ranging ramifications.
The task of procuring desks would ideally respond to a state strategy. If a state wishes to develop its forestry capacity and create jobs for locals, as is the case in Papua New Guinea, public procurement can contribute to generate social opportunities for carpenters and manufacturing workshops, for example. If a state plans to diversify its economy beyond oil extraction while focusing on the well-being of its people, as in Ecuador, one way to handle it could be a combined approach that considers recycling infrastructure, with the public procurement process taking responsibility for pre- and post-consumption, and the strengthening of a bioeconomy alongside its popular and solidarity economy. As seen, a process for procuring desks can be based on state strategies, and could entail the provision of social opportunities and economic facilities, among other instruments for development, as illustrated in the ‘development blocks’ of the proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development (Figure 1). With regard to sustainability aspects, there would also be several dimensions to be observed, as illustrated in the ‘sustainability pillars’ of Figure 1. In this hypothetical case, buying desks could take environmental considerations into account (regarding the origin of materials; impacts on land use; pollution; material and carbon footprints, etc.), as well as intergenerational aspects (regarding the renewability of resources and the consequences of excess consumption of plastics or wood products), and intragenerational aspects (when the supplier is asked to guarantee payment of living wages across the supply chain, for example). There are multiple alternatives, such as procuring desks made of wood from legal and well-managed forests linked to community forestry and small-scale production, or using reclaimed wood, as well as modular materials that could be easily disassembled and cycled back to the industrial or natural system. While it could be said that one specific solution is universally superior to another, it could also be claimed that the best solution depends on time, place and scale. For instance, the local circumstances, the relevant state strategies, and the stage of advancement in technology and infrastructure may determine what is best in each case. However, in any such case, the framework proposed in this paper may help in the process of decision-making, in policy appraisals and concept workshops, or as a reference for new manifestos, pledges and policies.
The concept of SPP introduced in this paper is intended to be high-level, serving as a reference for policy analysis, appraisals and evaluations. The accompanying framework can be useful as a benchmark for procurement for sustainable development. The set of potential development blocks and sustainability pillars is particularly useful as a means of bringing complexity back to SPP. The framework for procurement for sustainable development includes the classic tripod (comprising environmental, social and economic pillars), but goes beyond those principles to include other dimensions that have been often overlooked in procurement policy and scholarship: these include geographical equity and intergenerational equity, and some instruments for development, such as cohesion and horizontal accountability, or political freedoms and transparency guarantees, to use the language of Amartya Sen. Besides, the development blocks and sustainability pillars of the framework can also serve as points of reference for other policy instruments, such as fiscal policy and trade policy.
Most international organizations, businesses and think-tanks have called for ‘impact mitigation’ and ‘reduction of negative impacts’ in SPP, but these ideas send the wrong message.
Most international organizations, businesses and think-tanks have called for ‘impact mitigation’ and ‘reduction of negative impacts’ in SPP, but these ideas send the wrong message. By implying that sustainable procurement in the public sector has to contribute to the expansion of the economy while mitigating damage to society and the environment, they reinforce the imbalance that lies at the heart of the problem – and that arises from unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. Until now, procurement that tries to balance economic, social and environmental benefits has largely perpetuated the problem. Having identified that mainstream concepts of SPP derived from a corporate framework of the 1990s, this paper has argued for a new concept of SPP (see Box 1). The revised definition fits the requirements of the public sector and engages with solid principles of sustainability and development. This paper has also introduced a proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development, and has used examples from Papua New Guinea, Ecuador and Brazil to demonstrate how states can leverage public procurement to the advantage of their own development priorities, and how sustainability principles can be interwoven with it. Sectoral programmes in Uganda, Vietnam, Colombia and São Paulo have also been drawn on as examples of how national and subnational governments in the Global South have been tackling SPP, and have made it clear that SPP is not exclusive to Global North countries.
Harnessing state powers (including purchasing powers) for sustainable development should be at the heart of negotiations and commitments to ‘building forward better’, or to any kind of new deal. A plethora of expected recovery and incentive packages are being developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and several post-2020 reviews of global frameworks on sustainable development, international aid, global health and well-being, business and trade, land, biodiversity and climate are in progress. All of these could benefit from a thoughtful appreciation of the diversity of development challenges and the complexity of sustainability. States should relinquish sustainability models designed by and for businesses, and should observe principles that are appropriate for the public interest – for the welfare or well-being of the general public and society, and for the health of people and the planet. But until international commitments and frameworks have been decided upon, sovereign states and institutions willing to take the lead on sustainable development can find immediate inspiration in the proposed framework for procurement for sustainable development, as well as in the guidance offered in Chapter 6.
In times of global crises and rising uncertainties, policymakers and citizens alike have come to realize the need for new policy ideas, new strategies and reinvented states to lead societies towards greater resiliency, fairness and, ultimately, sustainability. Governments are embarking on a period of unparalleled government expenditure. Procurement for sustainable development, as presented in this paper, needs to be at the heart of this process, or the world will lose a critically important opportunity – one that is, perhaps, the opportunity of a generation.