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What systemic changes are possible through Sustainable Public Procurement?

Whilst the perspectives listed below represent SPP programme focus areas, they are meant as non-exclusive, illustrative thought-provoking examples. 

Health care: At the forefront in the fight against the pandemic, the health sector is under tremendous pressure. Supply bottlenecks of personal protective equipment items, respirators and other essentials put personnel and patients at risk. Meanwhile, single-use and potentially contaminated tools and items are disposed of and contribute to immense waste streams.

Examples of what can be done: develop risk indices for health products; conduct healthcare waste management assessments; mobilise national and sub-national level health systems, international organisations and community health care systems on every continent to transform health sector production and consumption by collaboratively targeting harmful products and building demand for more sustainable alternatives. 

Construction & infrastructure: Construction and infrastructure projects are exposed to both direct effects of the pandemic on the workers and indirect effects due to adverse impacts on the world economy. The governments, in order to kick-start their economy, have allowed continuance of construction activities, putting the health and safety of construction workers at stake during the pandemic. Simultaneously, quarantine requirements, restriction on movement and slowed business activities have heavily impacted the livelihood of workers in this sector. On a macro level, global recession has led to a reduction in the number of contracts and disruptions in global supply chains, adversely impacting SMEs and the ability of the global community to meet SDG-1 by 2030. 

Examples of what can be done: implement energy efficiency and low carbon construction based on green supply chain principles; re-think the design of infrastructure with “social-distancing” at the centre to improve response possibilities to possible future pandemics; put in place procurement measures to support vulnerable groups and minimise the disproportionate impact on them; introduce measures to diversify the suppliers base and enlist local suppliers to build resilience; use pre-qualification criteria to enhance sustainability of construction and infrastructure during and post-COVID-19 recovery period.

Photo credit: Louis Reed - Unsplash


Circular Procurement: Circularity reduces the need for resource extraction which is one of the main drivers of habitat fragmentation and the spreading of zoonotic diseases. As a consequence of the global supply chain disruptions, production is increasingly localised together with a shift to a ‘reduce first’ mindset, benefiting the implementation of the circular model. Concomitant budget constraints might furthermore lead to an increased need to re-thinking production, use of second life products and focus on repair or service based models.

Examples of what can be done: work towards political commitment for the mindset shift towards circular products and service-based models; implement national legislation that corresponds to circularity and that trickles down to the local level; mainstream circularity criteria as voluntary practice with a view to making them mandatory for public procurement; generate and disseminate knowledge on good practice of circular procurement in an accessible and easy-to-use way.

SPP Monitoring & Reporting: Governments and contracting authorities have had difficulties measuring the percentage of their procurement that supports sustainability and circularity objectives. They have even less knowledge of the impacts of their sustainable procurement (e.g. reduced GHG emissions; creation of green jobs; resource efficiency; gender equality). Governments are however aware of the necessity to improve the monitoring of SPP and are progressing towards stronger measurement systems and integrating it in public procurement frameworks, which is facilitated by the rise of e-procurement platforms. The inclusion of an SPP target in Goal 12 of the SDGs is expected to boost SPP monitoring efforts worldwide. Governments should also ensure that the sustainability impacts linked to the recovery plans procurement expenses are properly recorded.  

Examples of what can be done: integrate SPP measurement (including SPP related to recovery programmes) in the public procurement monitoring framework; take part in the data collection efforts related to SDG 12.7.1; analyse and document successful programmes in a consistent way; share best practices at global level; consolidate existing data on SPP.

Mobility & transport: Public transport and its infrastructure play an ambiguous role for SPP in addressing COVID-19. Infection exposure in closed, poorly ventilated rooms like in buses and trains is higher, which ultimately might lead to an increase in individual vehicle usage - undesirable from an environmental point of view. The rethinking and remodelling of public infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a viable alternative that brings numerous concomitant benefits from a health, noise and quality of life perspective. Business travel on the other hand is encouraged to be permanently reduced and replaced by remote conferencing as is common practice during the pandemic.

Photo credit: Louis Reed - Unsplash


Information and Computer Technology (ICT): The ICT market was seriously affected in the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, due to lockdowns of manufacturing facilities and problems in transport. On the supply side workers faced economic hardships and increased health risks. On the demand side a new need emerged to facilitate online education and working from home and an increasing demand for remanufactured devices. 

Examples of what can be done: the post-covid strategies should reflect the new discussions on resilience and transparency in the chain, new mixes in working from home and at the office, online meetings reducing the need for travelling, the role of online education facilities, and, the impact on the needed hardware, directly and in the cloud. Efforts to improve working conditions and to pay fair wages should be increased.

Food: Agri-food value chains are directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Quarantine measures and restriction on movement have limited farmer’s timely access to inputs (such as seeds and fertilizers) and labour force, preventing them to plant or to harvest in time. This has been causing shortages and related increased prices as well as huge food losses and economic losses for farmers. Disruption of public services (such as field visits and pest monitoring and surveillance) may also compromise the adoption of sustainable production practices. Food supply has been also affected by the closure of distribution channels (such as of local food markets) and reduced demand, including the public one with the closure or/limited functioning of public catering services, such as schools. These have important negative effects to both food producers (in particular small and medium farmers) and food consumers, affecting specially the poorest and most vulnerable ones.

Examples of what can be done: Include food procurement as one important part of SPP strategies recognizing its role to support and promote the production and consumption of more sustainable and healthy food and to trigger the development of sustainable local food systems; Expand and improve social protection programmes that includes the provision of food and emergency food assistance; Strength the “social” and “inclusiveness” aspects of public food procurement initiatives during and post COVID-19, and develop appropriated mechanisms (such as set-aside and preference schemes, adapted procurement methods, awarding criteria that go beyond the lowest price, etc.) to support the participation of smallholder farmers and other types of vulnerable food suppliers; Increase and/or set specific targets for the purchase of food from sustainable production practices; Provide training and guidelines to build capacities and support implementation of sustainable public food procurement practices; Establish multi-sectorial dialogue mechanisms for better coordination and couple public food procurement measures with supply side and logistic measures.

Photo credit: Luis Tato - FAO


Textiles: Textiles have a highly significant carbon and water footprint and some single-use items are difficult or even impossible to recycle, for example in clinical situations. It is therefore important to assess whether reusable items can be viable substitutes for single-use ones. In the production of new textiles working conditions are still problematic. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and increased the vulnerability of workers, most of them women.

Examples of what can be done: develop specifications for recycled fibres; ensure lifetime optimisation of clothing and textiles through reuse; ensure that the post-COVID-19 recovery includes a switching back to sustainable textiles rather than retaining the temporary measures introduced during the pandemic crisis; guarantee decent working conditions and fair wages in textile supply chains to increase social resilience.

Plastic in the environment:  Demand for single-use plastics has increased during the pandemic. The UN One Planet Network has been tasked under the UN Environment Assembly with developing cross-programme guidance to help address the impacts of single-use plastic packaging. Around 40% of plastics demand is for packaging. A simple, cost-effective way to address the plastics challenge is to prevent waste arising by reducing consumption in line with the long-established Waste Hierarchy principles.

Examples of what can be done: Adopt a procurement hierarchy that avoids plastics where possible, reuses where feasible and otherwise recycles plastics; specifying recycled content in packaging; ensure take-back of packaging for responsible recycling; reduce the demand for plastic by seeking to eliminate unnecessary purchasing and consumption; encourage innovation of substitute materials and better design; where single-use plastics packaging cannot be eliminated, use public procurement to help close the plastics loop to avoid leakage into the environment.

Read the SPP Programme's Call to Action

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