Avoiding Sustainable Purchasing Policy Pitfalls

I regularly talk to purchasing and sustainability professionals who are struggling with what to do about a sustainable purchasing policy. Some don’t have one and are just getting started drafting one. Others have created one but are having a hard time getting it adopted. While many have gotten one adopted and are frustrated by the difficulty of implementing it.

I know their pain. I experienced similar problems when leading the development of Duke University and Health System’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Guidelines in 2004, and overseeing their implementation into 2006. While working at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, I encountered many colleges and universities running into the exact same problems. Those experiences are part of what led me to get involved in forming SPLC. I felt there had to be a better way.

Today, I think SPLC has already developed some tools that can make creating and adopting an effective sustainable purchasing policy more effective. The below advice is what I share with people I speak with conversationally. It’s been helpful to enough people that I thought I’d share it more publicly, despite the fact that it mixes together my personal experience and SPLC’s tools. My hope is that sharing it will help others and will spur some feedback that can be useful to the Council’s membership.


Yes, You Do Need the Support of Senior Leadership
While plenty of good sustainable purchasing tactics can be implemented without the official support of senior leaders, most advocates ultimately conclude that buy-in from senior management is necessary for their organization to dramatically improve their supply chain’s environmental, social and economic performance. This is because the biggest impacts usually are driven by a significant portion of the organization’s activities and purchasing, which means that making change requires substantial collaboration across the organization. Winning commitments from senior leadership is generally the only way to achieve that level of collaboration.

Having a Policy Doesn’t Ensure Senior Leadership Support
As mentioned earlier, I hear from many people who are frustrated or embarrassed that little has changed despite their senior leaders having signed off on a sustainable purchasing policy. I also hear from organizations that have accomplished a great deal without a sustainable purchasing policy. And there are many in between that have a sustainable purchasing policy and are making steady progress. Clearly, then, having a policy commitment at a senior level can be helpful, but it doesn’t guarantee success, nor is it a requirement for success. However, might there be a way to increase the probability that it would deliver success?

Ask Only for Commitments Your Senior Leaders Can Prudently Give
After a year of developing Duke’s draft EPP Policy with input from a multi-stakeholder committee that included many senior staff from across the university and health system, I was disappointed when the Executive Vice President decided that the draft policy would be adopted only as “EPP Guidelines”. Before he made that decision he asked me, “What would happen if we did everything in this policy? What would it cost? What would the environmental impact be?” After a year of stakeholder meetings, I was astounded to realize I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know. So, how could I expect him to commit the organization to a policy with no knowledge of what the consequences of that commitment would be? It took me a while to appreciate the correctness of his decision. I had led the committee to ask for something he couldn’t prudently give.

Ask Only for Commitments You Really Need
As we got into implementing the Guidelines, I also realized that our policy draft had asked for many more policy commitments than we needed. Most of the actions we’d listed in our policy we were able to achieve simply by working with the vendor, talking to a budget holder, tweaking RFP criteria, or by implementing a behavior change program. In two years, only two actions we implemented required a high level policy commitment: One was a total commitment to buying ENERGY STAR certified products in categories that ENERGY STAR rated, which was more aggressive than we’d dared ask for in the draft EPP Policy. The other was an auto-substitution of certified remanufactured toner cartridges, which hadn’t been one of the commitments we’re requested in our draft EPP Policy anyway. Getting those policies adopted by the Executive Vice President turned out to be a cinch because we could easily answer his questions about the cost and environmental implications of the policies and could show that we needed a high level commitment in order for the implementation to be successful.

I’ve heard many people, including Chief Procurement Officers, describe similar experiences working with executives and large budget holders. When presented with evidence that the benefits and consequences of making a particular sustainable purchasing commitment are well understood, that the benefits outweigh the consequences, and that their commitment is required for success, most leaders will make the more sustainable choice.

What You Do Need from Senior Leaders
Here, I’m just going to talk about what you need in order to run the strategic sustainable purchasing process described in SPLC’s Guidance for Leadership in Sustainable Purchasing v1.0, as depicted in this diagram:

Diagram of SPLC Guidance v1.0.  Process flow begins with Enlisting Support, Scoping the Initiative, and Structuring Stakeholder Engagement.  It then goes into a cyclical process titled "Running the Process", which begins with Analyze, then Action Plan, then Implement, then Measure, which feedback into Analyze. Then an arrow indicates that the data resulting from that process will be something organizations can submit to the Council for a performance benchmarking and leadership rating, in the future.

To be successful in Running the Process and generating real performance improvements as a result, you need senior leaders to make two distinct types of commitments:

  1. Process Commitments
    The commitment of political will, resources, and technical expertise required to Run the Process, and to keep Running the Process.
  2. Purchasing Commitments
    Committing the organization to specific actions that your Action Plan say would improve the environmental, social and economic performance of the organization’s purchasing – in cases where a commitment from senior leaders would be required to implement the specific action.

These two types of commitments are also distinct in that they are typically needed in different parts of the process:

This diagram is the same as the Guidance v1.0 diagram above, with two exceptions.  There is an arrow pointing out of the Enlisting Support step that says "Outcome: Process Commitment: Political will, resources and technical expertise" and there is a similar arrow pointing out of the Implementation step in the Running the Process cycle, which reads "Outcome: Purchasing Commitment: political will, resources and technical expertise"

This distinction is very helpful! It means you can separate when you ask your senior leaders to commit to Running the Process from when you ask them to make purchasing commitments. Trying to do both at once is what makes the sustainable purchasing policy drafting and implementation process so fraught for many organizations. Without having run the Analysis and Action Planning process first, it’s difficult to say what purchasing commitments should be prioritized, which of those must be made at a senior leader level, and what the consequences of those commitments will be.

What Does a Process Commitment Look Like?
It could be a simple policy that outlines the process the organization is committing to and the expectations for the outcomes of that process. Here’s a paraphrase of what that policy might say, “within some timeline an Analysis will be conducted, an Action Plan will be delivered, the Action Plan will either be Implemented or sent back for revision, Metrics will be identified and tracked, and the process will be repeated at some reasonable interval.” That example is obviously based on the Running the Process outline, but an equally meaningful policy commitment could be made out of the Council’s Principles for Leadership in Sustainable Purchasing. (If you know of a real-world purchasing policy that exemplifies the pure process commitment described here, please send it to me so I can create a cache of examples.) Organizations that have made a commitment to climate action planning offer another great example of how commitments can be made to an iterative process of inventorying, action planning, implementing and measuring progress.

But, it doesn’t have to be a policy. If a CEO decides to commit the political will, resources and expertise necessary to Run the Process without creating a formal policy, they could do that and produce similar results as an organization making the commitment with a policy. (However, leadership and organizational priorities can change, so having a formal commitment that is communicated publicly can certainly help ensure that an organization sticks with Running the Process.) If your organization has an over-arching sustainability commitment and a strong multi-stakeholder committee already in place for working on that commitment, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Showing that group how powerful sustainable purchasing can be for advancing the organization’s sustainability commitment may be the quickest way to put together a cross-functional team and find solid support for Running the Process.


If you’ve gotten this far, thanks so much for reading all the way to the end! I do hope it was helpful.  Either way, I would appreciate it if you used the comments to let me know what you thought or to share additional suggestions for readers.

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