How can public procurement help cities achieve their sustainable goals?

Edited on 10/12/2019

Sustainable public procurement aims to address the impact on society of the goods, services and works purchased by the public sector and can be a powerful tool both for advancing sustainable development and for achieving local social and environmental objectives. The Making Spend Matter cities came together in Bistrita, Romania, to explore public procurement as a strategic instrument to spend public money efficiently and sustainably.


Sustainable procurement is used by public buyers to ensure that their purchasing reflects goals such as resource efficiency, climate change, social responsibility and economic resilience. Although the benefits and opportunities of sustainable procurement are clear and widely recognised, it remains a challenge for public buyers to implement social and environmental criteria into purchasing decisions. In Bistrita, the Making Spend Matter partners uncovered three broad areas that are cross-cutting challenges in all the cities.

Internal planning and support

Even if a city has policies in place and ambitions to address environmental and social issues, getting colleagues to get on board with sustainable procurement is not easy.

The Making Spend Matter cities looked at how collaboration with several departments to develop a clear picture of real needs can provide a solid basis on which to build the procurement process. Getting support is a two-way process and dialogue should involve all key stakeholders involved in and influencing sustainable procurement – key decision-makers and budget holders, and those involved in day-to-day implementation.

Building the business case for sustainable procurement involves convincing those stakeholders that sustainable innovations can cost less in the long-term. Sustainable purchasing can also create new opportunities for SMEs and improve the health of those living in the cities.

Engaging with suppliers

The cities also identified that sustainable procurement can only happen if the supply base can provide environmentally and socially responsible products and services. In other words, sustainable procurement is determined by how the market responds to your demands.

In the meeting, it was highlighted that market engagement with potential suppliers before tendering can identify prospective bidders and solutions. Other reasons to engage suppliers include building capacity in the market to meet the requirements and better inform the design of the procurement and contract.

Dialogue with suppliers may take several different forms, such as questionnaires, meetings and events. It is an excellent way to identify the costs, risks and benefits of sustainable and innovative solutions in advance of publishing a tender opportunity.

Knowledge and skills to apply criteria

Many procurers still struggle to define what an "environmentally or socially preferable" product or service is, and how to include demands when publishing a tender opportunity.

However, bidders are unlikely to propose new, more sustainable ways of doing things if technical specifications, selection or award criteria do not ask this of them.

Luckily, there are many sources of criteria for sustainable procurement, which can be inserted directly into a tender, without the need for lengthy research into environmental and social performance characteristics. In Bistrita, the Making Spend Matter partners explored approaches from real-life case studies of successful sustainable procurement across Europe. The cities in the room were able to begin thinking about how they can address their social and environmental challenges through criteria and specifications.

While there is a lot of information and support available for sustainable procurement, often the barriers can be internal. The Making Spend Matter partners will spend the time leading up to the next meeting in Pamplona working on internal strategies for engaging colleagues for sustainable procurement. This preparation also involves exploring procurement plans that could be low hanging fruit for sustainable approaches.

This article is written by: 

John Watt

Officer, Sustainable Economy and Procurement

ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability


Submitted by Alison Taylor on 10/12/2019
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Alison Taylor

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