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Sustainable procurement in social housing: are we there yet?

In 2008, in partnership with Procurement for Housing, we completed a research project looking at the extent of sustainable procurement in the social housing sector. The clear message coming through then was that registered providers were ‘working towards’ sustainable procurement. It was predominantly seen as an aspirational goal and ‘tomorrow’s challenge’.

Policies were being established to demonstrate registered providers’ commitment to sustainability covering the triple bottom line (TBL): environmental, economic and social issues. These issues, more commonly referred to as planet, profit and people, represented a major challenge for buyers in the sector. While there was drive, vision and engagement with the ethos and aim of sustainable procurement, social landlords told us of the complex challenges: costs, contradictory dimensions of the TBL and the inherent difficulties of turning policy into action. It was clear… tomorrow’s challenge was tough.

Fast forward four years to 2012 and we have just completed another study with Procurement for Housing on sustainable purchasing in the social housing sector. What we hoped to see was that tomorrow’s challenge was today being tackled. Unfortunately, the results show only small progress and 68% of buyers still believe their social housing organisations have a long way to go in order to deliver sustainable procurement.

Sustainable procurement activities are still predominantly internally focused within the sector – developing policies and training staff and implementation of these policies is slow and not fully embedded in the supply chain. There is some engagement with first tier suppliers, but the message from social landlord buyers to their suppliers often centres on, ‘we have to address sustainability, so what are you going to do about it?’

The latest research also identified a new problem. The social housing sector’s approach to sustainable procurement can be insular and driven by regulation. The risk here is that the positive, motivating commitment seen in the earlier research is being eroded by a more negative, demotivating compliance approach. Coupled with this, there is little knowledge sharing with suppliers and contractors on sustainable procurement solutions. Consequently, most registered providers are not getting the benefits of the ideas from other sectors and results are stagnating.

When we look to other sectors outside of social housing, there are many examples of organisations using sustainable procurement as a strategic competitive advantage, underpinned by an engagement with broader supply networks. Procurement needs to shift to a strategic position in the organisation to enable spend to be challenged effectively.

At the heart of these achievements is recognition that the world is changing, and so too are the rules of the game. Passing responsibility to suppliers is itself unsustainable. While it might give us some useful answers, yesterday’s logic is not appropriate as it is really asking the wrong question. Should buyers be aiming for sustainable suppliers or should they be seeking sustainable supply? A subtle question perhaps, but one that has significant impact on spend, risk, and supply chains.

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