Planning for green and sustainable public procurement in the construction sector
Guest author: Kedar Uttam
A reflection on how green and sustainable public procurement must be steered in the construction sector. My aim is to understand how the construction sector can take responsibility for nature and society affected by its purchasing decisions.
Green and sustainable public procurement for a more sustainable construction sector in Nordic countries. Picture credits - Above: Tawhid. Below: author.
Green public procurement is a process whereby public authorities aim to reduce the environmental impacts caused by the purchase of products and services. It is expanding towards inclusion of social considerations and being termed as sustainable public procurement. The Construction sector is identified as one of the priority sectors for the implementation of green and sustainable public procurement given the sector’s vast consumption of natural resources and energy.
I set out interviewing consultants, experts, researchers, government officials from all the Nordic countries concerning their views on the future of green public procurement in the context of the construction sector. The method I used was Q methodology[i], which helped to reveal a range of understandings and accounts around the domain of green and sustainable procurement. Three accounts were identified.
They include A: analytical support for pro-environmental action in procurement, B: sustainability value-laden efforts and innovation for green and sustainable public procurement, and C: enabling organisations and partnerships to promote green and sustainable public procurement. In account A, the key concern is that environmental issues need to be prioritised in procurement decisions by providing more weight to environmental aspects in tendering process. This view also highlighted the importance of analytical methods and expertise in tools such as life cycle assessment to be better informed about criteria and alternatives. In terms of the future, account A relies on providing analytical support to develop criteria, thereby enabling significant weight for environmental aspects, and facilitating the necessary interactions to promote green procurement.
Account B is distinctive because of its critical views and core belief in sustainability values and innovation. From a supply chain perspective, this account argued that the difficulties faced in the traceability of raw materials are overrated. One of the participants mentioned that “the supplier should know where it [raw materials for the product] comes from; yes it takes time, but not impossible. They do pay money [..] you have traceability of money”. This account sees the role of dialogue between contractors and contracting authorities to promote innovation. Account B suggested that there should be no strong distinction between environmental and functional objectives in a procurement process. It was claimed that this distinction might increase the tendency to prioritise one over the other. In addition, account B exhibits interest in the claim that green and sustainable public procurement requirements should be established during the planning phase of the project.
Account C focused on organisation and partnerships. It emphasised the need to train and educate the procurement staff on a variety of concerns related to green and sustainable procurement. The training should aim at promoting awareness regarding various environmental and social issues to be covered in the procurement process and also the strategies required for implementing green and sustainable procurement. This account was strong on the idea that the procurement and environmental staff should communicate with each other. In addition, this account underscored the need for continuous improvement in procurer-contractor relationships. It stressed the importance of incentives to both large and small contractors for developing sustainable practices in a way that enhances their competitiveness. Moreover, this account indicated that the traditional procurement procedure does not allow the improvement in procurer-contractor relationships. These relationships are necessary to develop realistic solutions in green and sustainable public procurement that can contribute to sustainability. A participant expressing this viewpoint mentioned about the chances of contracting authorities “rewarding illusions” under the pretext of following green and sustainable public procurement. Thus, account C calls for more partnerships and dialogue to develop practical solutions in green and sustainable public procurement.
Sustainable public procurement in the context of the construction sector should not be merely seen from the perspective of promoting eco-efficiency (generating more economic value with minimal environmental impact). With the aid of sustainable public procurement, the construction sector should avoid the tendency to reject any responsibility for the activities involved in the extractive industries, mines and forests from where it draws its raw materials. But what is in it for the contracting authorities and contractors; what could motivate them to step into such an adventure? This needs reflection in the context of various policies relevant to green and sustainable public procurement.
For instance, one such policy includes the flagship initiative ‘resource-efficient Europe’ and its emphasis on ecosystem services and natural capital. Ecosystem services are the benefits human populations receive from ecosystems, which include ‘provisioning services’ such as food, water, timber; ‘regulating services’ that affect climate, floods, wastes and water quality; ‘cultural services’ that provide recreational, aesthetic benefits; and ‘supporting services’ such as photosynthesis[ii]. The ecosystems that provide the services are considered as natural capital[iii]. Given such emphasis on natural capital, it is important to evaluate green and sustainable public procurement activities in connection with natural capital and sustainability.
According to Voget-Kleschin[iv], a certain process or measure can qualify as contributing to sustainability if it strives to meet either direct or indirect claims for justice regarding natural capital or both, and does not violate the claims. If the construction sector truly intends to contribute to sustainability via green and sustainable public procurement, then it could be important to understand if and how far green and sustainable public procurement complies with direct or indirect claims for justice regarding natural capital. Direct claims require that all contemporary and future human beings should be able to live a decent human life. Indirect claims involve claims for the treatment of natural capital in a way that assures not to undermine contemporary and future humans’ ability to live a decent human life.
[i] Barry, J., Proops, J., 1999. Seeking sustainability discourses with Q Methodology. Ecol. Econ. 28 (3): 337–345.
[ii] MEA Millennium Ecosystem Assessment., 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington DC.
[iii] Costanza, R., 2012. The value of natural and social capital in our current full world and in a sustainable and desirable future, in Weinstein., M. P., Turner, R. E. (Eds.), Sustainability Science. Springer, New York, pp. 99–109
[iv] Voget-Kleschin, L., 2013. Large-scale land acquisition: Evaluating its environmental aspects against the background of strong sustainability. J. Agr. Environ. Ethics. 26 (6). 1105–1126.
Kedar loves to loiter in the university. He is a sustainability researcher and teacher. His research interests include environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment, cultural impact assessment, and green and sustainable public procurement. He has also monitored and evaluated development projects funded under the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)- Small Grants Programme (SGP). He has a PhD from KTH Sweden in the field of environmental assessment and management.
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