UK green procurement up in smoke?

UK green procurement up in smoke?

Ethical Consumer has long campaigned for ethical government procurement as a strong tool for driving social change. The coalition’s recent ‘bonfire of the quangos’ saw both bodies responsible for ethical procurement go up in flames. Tim Hunt looks at what’s rising from their ashes.

A blizzard of acronyms

In 2010, before leaving office, the Labour government announced new Sustainable Development in Government (SDiG) targets that were to be in place from 2011/12. These were due to build on Goals for Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate (SOGE) that were announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2006, and the goals set on sustainable procurement for all government departments in its Sustainable Procurement Action Plan 2007.

The SDiG targets were to be managed and monitored by the Office for Government Commerce (OGC) alongside the Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement (CESP). The targets have now been changed, the OGC has been merged into a new Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) within the Cabinet Office, and CESP has been disbanded.

The SDiG targets were replaced in February this year by the Greening Government Commitments (GGC). These set out how the government proposes to reduce the impact on the environment of its own operations and procurement. The Cabinet Office’s Green Government Unit, rather than the OGC as previously, will publish regular updates on progress towards the GGC.

CESP brought together a number of different organisations and government departments including expert bodies such as the Carbon Trust, Energy Savings Trust and Central Point of Expertise on Timber (CPET). Many of CESP’s functions will also now be bought into the Cabinet Office’s Green Government Unit within the ERG. An action plan that covered this first year of change was also published and made available to the public.

However, worryingly, the office in charge could give little detail on how these new bodies will actually function going forward, saying: “The Government will make an announcement in due course  on how best to deliver policy objectives  through procurement.”2


New Targets

There are nonetheless a number of targets to be achieved by 2015 that the Government has introduced. These include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the whole estate and business-related transport by 25% from a financial year 2009/10 baseline, and reducing the amount of waste generated by 25% from a 2009/10 baseline. Reporting on these figures is done through a new portal on the DEFRA website.1

These targets appear ambitious but in reality should be easy to hit as every government department has had a cut in funding of around 25% and much of the carbon use will be taken off the books as public bodies are sold off to private enterprise.

It is important to remember that all Government purchasing is also governed by EU law. Member states have been encouraged to draw up publicly available National Action Plans (NAPs) for greening their public procurement.

The legislation says that NAPs should contain an assessment of the existing situation and ambitious targets for the following three years, specifying what measures will be taken to achieve them. Sadly the NAPs are not legally-binding but they aim to “provide political impetus to the process of implementing and raising awareness of greener public procurement,” according to the European Comission. It set an ambitious target: by 2010, 50% of all tenders should be compliant with endorsed common “core” Green Procurement Policy criteria.

Sadly a spokesperson for the EU said that this target had not been met but unable to say what percentage of tenders were compliant. A review is currently underway. There is also little monitoring in the UK and the Government currently has no figures on compliance but it is expecting to
participate in the EU survey later this year. This will question just a sample of public sector bodies rather than looking at the entire picture.

What about the workers?

One final aspect still noticeable by its absence is a statement which covers workers’ rights or indeed any ethical criteria beyond environmental targets, for instance the use of tax havens. One notable exception is the purchase of sustainable timber under the Central Point of Expertise on Timber, which was introduced in 2009 after pressure from campaigners such as Greenpeace.

The new criteria does acknowledge the importance of supply chains but only in environmental terms. It states that it will “Improve and publish data on our supply chain impacts, initially focussing on carbon, but also water and waste – setting detailed baselines for reducing these impacts.” Again the shake up has missed a key aspect of ethical procurement and the failure to include any mention of workers’ rights will be a big disappointment to anyone campaigning on these issues.


References  1  2 Email to ECRA from Chris Kirby at the Cabinet Office 8/9/11.