Coro’s Blog: On Purpose

How Purchasing Drives Sustainability

Published on December 14, 2010

I’m not a Grinch. I like to honour my friends and family with gifts at this time of year. But still, I think about the flurry of spending that seems at odds with the celebration of birth, peace, love and the return of light.

In fact, I think about spending all year round. Or, to be more precise, I think about the power of purchasing. As consumers we can choose how we use our money. We can save and invest it. (See my last post.) We can give it away – that’s a topic for another post. Or we can spend it.

When we spend money, we use it to purchase the things we need in our lives: food, clothes, housing, chocolate.

If we purchase consciously, we can make our dollars work harder. We can target our purchasing to effect change beyond what we get back. Locally raised organic free-range turkey. Preloved mittens. A LEED Gold home. Camino Fair Trade chocolate.

How we purchase as individual consumers makes a difference; collectively we create market demand. However, businesses, governments and large organizations have far more purchasing power than you or I. Like ours, their purchasing decisions can drive sustainability – but on a larger scale.

So it’s a good thing that, once companies have committed to a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability policy, they often turn to their procurement department to adopt sustainability considerations into purchasing.

This is reflected in the 2009 TerraChoice Eco-Market Survey of nearly 600 purchasers representing business, government and non-profits in Canada and the US. The survey found that nearly three-quarters of the organizations had a sustainable purchasing policy – up from two-thirds in 2008.  Of those who didn’t have such a policy, over half plan to implement one.

Applied across the global market, those growing numbers can drive real change.

This year I conducted a study for The Co-operators on international best practice in sustainability. It revealed some common characteristics of comprehensive sustainable purchasing programs.

If you would like to develop a sustainable purchasing policy, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • First, establish clear CSR or sustainability goals for your purchasing.  (I helped develop sustainable purchasing policies for both the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games and The Co-operators, the largest Canadian-owned insurer. We learned how important it is to clarify sustainability goals at the outset in order to develop a robust sustainable purchasing policy and program.)
  • Incorporate sustainability criteria into requests for proposals.
  • Require suppliers to complete sustainability questionnaires.
  • Weight sustainability in the evaluation process.
  • Include sustainability terms and conditions in contracts.

For support, join the BuySmart Network. I teamed up with Tim Reeve and Charlene Easton about five years ago to form the BuySmart Network, now a program of the Fraser Basin Council.  The Network provides education, advice and networking opportunities to organizations that seek to integrate social, ethical and environmental factors into purchasing decisions.

So, don’t be a Grinch. Enjoy this holiday season. Cherish your loved ones. Light a candle for peace. And purchase with purpose.

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