Local government catches sustainable procurement wave

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Sustainable procurement is gaining traction within Australian councils as they respond to community pressure to take the lead on environmental issues.

Government News spoke to two NSW councils who are finalists in the Local Government NSW awards to find out how they are embracing sustainable procurement.

First, it’s useful to set a definition of what sustainable procurement means. Procurement is not just about buying goods and services, it covers the whole process: tendering, business planning, sourcing supplies and suppliers and managing contracts. Sustainable – or green – procurement can be defined as: “choosing to buy products and services that are less damaging to the environment and health” (Eco-Buy, 2013).

These concerns include the energy, water and waste when producing and disposing of a product; a product’s lifespan; whether its materials used can be recycled or composted and greenhouse gas emissions.

Other definitions can be a little broader and include the economic and social benefits of buying local products and services and the employment, training and practices of suppliers.

Nicole Thompson is the Senior Sustainability Projects Officer at Canada Bay Council in Sydney’s Inner West.

“Our general objectives are looking for ways to minimise water, waste and energy by making procurement more sustainable,” Ms Thompson said. But she acknowledges that sustainable procurement is almost a full-time job.

“Really understanding a product takes a bit of time: looking at where raw materials come from, the processes in manufacturing, the miles on it, disposing of a product and maintaining it. There’s a long line you have to go down to prepare a life-cycle assessment,” Ms Thompson said.

“We’ve been chipping away at it for several years. We’ve tended to look at where our biggest purchases are and what will have the biggest impact.”

Canada Bay Council decided to attack the big ticket items first, which led to it shining a spotlight onto the larger capital works it carries out and on the council’s vehicle fleet.

Reusing road base has become standard when repairing or building roads and the corporate fleet – which encompasses more than 100 vehicles, from ride-on mowers to plant machinery – uses biodiesel where possible.

The council is also investigating using hybrid vehicles. To combat the challenge of a number of council staff having procurement responsibilities, Canada Bay surveyed their suppliers about how they met their corporate social and environmental responsibilities.

The plan is to  make this information accessible so that about 50 preferred suppliers will be flagged on a central finance database. Council staff are also encouraged to give sustainability concerns more weight when considering tenders.

“We have integrated the sustainable procurement policy into the general procurement policy so that it’s just something naturally considered, rather than something separate,” Ms Thompson said.

The council also trains staff in sustainable procurement and has made this part of the induction process for new staff. How important is value for money under this approach?

“It’s definitely an issue for local government. It’s usually number one,” she said. Sustainable procurement could sometimes be a real saving, such as switching to 100 per cent recycled paper or considering whether or not to purchase a product or service at all.

Ms Thompson said she felt councils were becoming much more involved in sustainable procurement.

“There’s definitely a growing awareness of it and I think people understand what it is a little bit more. It comes down to efficiency too. A lot of our infrastructure guys will do that already, in terms of reducing maintenance and ongoing costs. It’s just a case of getting people to go a bit more above and beyond. We’ve got some great projects coming up so the staff are definitely engaged.”

Tweed Shire Council is another NSW council leading the way in sustainable procurement. Sustainability Program Manager Debbie Firestone said her council was encouraging staff to embed sustainability concerns into project designs and to consider environmental concerns when awarding large contracts over $50k.

“We also want to create a dialogue with our suppliers about what they’re doing to improve and manage their own environmental impact,” Ms Firestone said.

Like Canada Bay Council, Tweed Shire has homed in on its road infrastructure and use of asphalt and concrete, as well as its procurement of fleet vehicles and vehicle parts, as two areas with the most dramatic environmental impact.

So far, the council has had big wins in reducing fuel costs by choosing vehicles with energy efficient engines.

“On our sustainability journey we’re at the stage now where we are looking at life-cycle costs and alternative approaches to different products and services,” Ms Firestone said.

Life-cycle costs consider upfront costs, performance, durability, waste and recycling opportunities.

Ms Firestone said councils were becoming much more likely to take sustainability into account when making procurement decisions and were ‘mirroring community sentiment’.

She added that there was ‘pretty strong buy-in’ from councils into programs like Eco-Buy in Victoria, Sustainable Choice in NSW and the South Australian government’s procurement initiative.

Tweed Shire Council also takes into account whether a product or services is locally made and supplied, even if it costs slightly more.

President of the Australian Local Government Association, Troy Pickard, said he felt sustainable procurement was gaining momentum in Australian councils.

“This is evidenced by a growing body of work by the state associations in this area, and the provision of information to member councils on this issue.”

Mr Pickard also pointed to a recent study done in 2014 by academics at University of Southern Queensland on behalf of the Local Government Association of South Australia which talks about sustainable procurement internationally and in Australia, it’s called ‘Green Procurement by Local Government: a Review of Sustainability Criteria’.

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