A Five Minute Guide For Local Authorities

Need to Know: Sustainable Procurement


Posted By:

Craig Burnett


Supply chains offer huge opportunities for councils wishing to cut carbon. In 2019/20, authorities in England alone spent £63billion with external suppliers. Much of this spending comes with a significant carbon impact. But smarter thinking on procurement, focused on sustainability and social value, can make supply chains a powerful tool for creating stronger, happier communities.  

Sustainable procurement often means buying local – supporting local economies. What’s more, action can drive behaviour change, encouraging suppliers (including local businesses) to adopt more sustainable practices. In this way, council procurement is a powerful lever for cultural and economic transformation. 

This year, Ashden brought local authorities in North East England together to share insights and solutions on boosting sustainable procurement. Here’s what we learned – about the problem, the solutions, and the next steps needed.

What are the challenges facing local authorities? 

The central challenge facing councils is how to embed green procurement at the heart of their strategies and actions – so it becomes a starting point, rather than an afterthought.  

When councils make buying decisions, engagement with procurement and sustainability officers often comes too late in the process. And these two departments rarely work closely together. 

There is also a huge shortage of reliable baseline data about the carbon impact of council’s current procurement – so they simply don’t know where they are starting from. The national TOMs (themes, outcomes and measures) framework is intended to ensure larger contracts deliver social value as well as financial savings. But some authorities see it as large and unwieldy, and so use it sparingly or not at all. This means benchmarking becomes less possible and accurate. 

A final challenge comes in tackling carbon impact across entire supplying chains, which can be difficult to monitor and influence. But this highlights an important opportunity – to trigger reduced emissions, and all the benefits of climate action, with local business and organisations.   

What are the solutions? 

There’s an urgent need for more carbon literacy within councils, demystifying the topic for councillors, budget holders and commissioners. This would give decision makers the knowledge and confidence to look beyond immediate cost.   

Procurement expert Phillip Duddell recommends considering the full range of social and economic outcomes related to purchases – for example, supporting jobs and skills needed for the low carbon transition, and the need to boost social mobility and protect those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 

His other tips include making use of concepts such as the circular economy, and using a qualitative analysis approach to tackle data gaps. 

Councils can also accelerate progress by working with other organisations and partners – from local chambers of commerce and enterprise partnerships to the Confederation of British Industry and central government. 

Are there useful resources – and inspiring case studies – out there? 

One positive development is the 2020 Green Paper on Transforming Public Procurement. This should empower public sector commissioners to look beyond the cheapest possible option, and sets out a “golden thread” linking high level priorities, strategies and procurement, with tackling climate change and reducing waste being one key outcome. 

The Local Government Authority have commissioned useful guidance for councils on commissioning, procuring and managing contracts to deliver local economic, social and environmental priorities. This practical tool features a broad range of case studies and approaches, and is very useful for councils at the start of their work on greening procurement and generating social value.  

Notable trailblazers include the City of Sunderland Council, which has saved over £400,000 by working with partner Warp It to increase reuse and recycling within and between departments. The Preston Model is a well-known approach to green procurement whereby the council, in conjunction with other local anchor institutions, has adopted community wealth building approaches to economic development and procurement. This has included a clear focus on enabling local businesses to be involved in supply chains so that wealth is retained in the region.  

Finally, Durham County Council is focused on boosting the social impact of its procurement, setting its sights on a ‘fundamental trinity’ of quality, price and social value. This calls for a deep engagement with local small businesses. Most notably, Durham has created its own version of the national TOMs – updating them to match the council’s plans, policies and vision. For example, introducing a measure specifically focused on supporting care leavers into paid employment. This shows exactly how councils serious about climate action and other social benefits can put them at the heart of their spending. 

Procurement is an undervalued – but vital – area for council action on sustainability. Ashden continue working with key partners in North East England and beyond to tackle this crucial issue. 

Ashden’s work in this area is kindly supported by the MCS Charitable Foundation.

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