Sustainability Theme of the Month: August is for Sustainable Procurement

Thursday, August 5, 2021
by Jenna Phillips

In a world where things are starting to look closer to “normalcy,” the back-to-school shopping season is upon us again. From stationary supplies, to dorm room decorations, to clothing, to apartment furnishings and more, many of us will be making purchases for school this month, whether we are students, staff, or have family going back to school. What better time to incorporate sustainability considerations into your shopping behaviours? 

What is sustainable procurement?

At the Sustainability Office, we consider shopping sustainably as “sustainable procurement,” that is, the procurement (or attainment) of sustainable goods and services. Since sustainability is so complex, and since there are a wide variety of products on the market, there is no single set of guidelines or indicators to determine what a “sustainable” product is. The Sustainability Office recently published a sustainable procurement guide for furniture, cleaning and office supplies and more. Other procurement areas not touched on in the guide but can integrate sustainability include textiles (e.g., clothing or swag), food, gardening supplies – just about everything you purchase. Sustainable procurement aligns with many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, most notably SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. This SDG promotes the reduction of the global material footprint, transition to clean technology and circular economies, improved waste management and transparent company reporting. Therefore, our personal efforts to practice sustainable procurement contribute to global sustainability efforts!

Why sustainable procurement matters

Fair Trade coffee beans

From waste, to emissions, to water use and contamination, to fair labour, procurement incorporates many aspects of sustainability that the Sustainability Office regularly explores. Every physical item that consumers purchase can integrate sustainability. Therefore, sustainable procurement can be considered in every purchase that we make.  

By incorporating sustainable procurement into your purchasing practices, the following can be achieved:

  • Reduce the environmental impact of your purchasing habits;
  • Navigate misleading “greenwashing” claims for products that are actually unsustainable;
  • Rethink and minimize unnecessary purchases by shifting to reusable/renewable/repairable options;
  • Save money in the long run by reducing unnecessary purchases and supporting circular economies; and
  • Increase the demand for sustainable items and services, providing opportunities for more sustainable businesses and entrepreneurs.

Sustainable procurement is important for individual consumers and on the larger scale for businesses and organizations that purchase items in large quantities. For instance, at the University of Waterloo, departments and offices are encouraged to incorporate sustainable procurement into their own purchasing practices using the guide that we just published. In addition to the aforementioned benefits of sustainable procurement, additional benefits exist for businesses that integrate sustainable procurement into their purchasing practices:

  • Better purchasing decisions can be made that factor in long-term operating costs and efficiency;
  • It improves the University’s corporate social responsibility throughout the supply chain;
  • It minimizes risk from engaging with suppliers who have poor environmental track records; and
  • On the whole, it can help create a more sustainable campus.

Getting started with sustainable procurement

Now that you know what sustainable procurement is and why it matters, let’s talk about ways that you can incorporate it into your shopping habits. As mentioned, there is no single “checklist” that will tell you whether an item is sustainable or not, so sustainable procurement will look very different depending on what it is that you are purchasing. That said, there are broad questions you can ask yourself to help you make a more informed and sustainable choice:

  • Where was the product made?
    • Are there opportunities to support local creators, farmers, etc.?
    • Is the company known for harming specific ecosystems (e.g., rainforest deforestation)
  • What is the product made of?
    • Can you find an option made of recycled, reclaimed or repurposed materials?
    • Were the materials made using responsible production practices?
  • How is the product made?
    • Does the company have ethical labour practices?
    • Will a lot of waste be produced to create or consume the product?
  • Does the product/company have any third-party sustainability certifications?
    • E.g., Certified B Corp, Certified Organic, Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), BPI Compostable
  • What is the lifespan of the product?
    • Will you need to replace regularly?
    • Is there an option for a product with a longer lifespan that will save you money in the long run?
  • Do you need to make the purchase?
    • Ultimately, can you repair or make your own product that will serve the function you are looking for?
Checklist on a chalk board

Of course, you may not be able to answer all of these questions on the spot, or even while doing research prior to purchasing. That said, companies that are transparent about their business practices and how their products are made are likely a better choice than those without any information.

Importantly, sustainable procurement doesn’t mean we need to spend more money on a single product. While the upfront cost of a product supporting sustainable production may be higher, the long-term cost of purchasing a high-quality, durable product may be lower. In addition, since sustainability encompasses so many factors, you can find a product that balances sustainability with diverse financial and accessibility needs. 

Take action

Explore the resources below to learn more about ways to incorporate sustainable procurement into your purchasing behaviours.

Our challenge to you: use the advice provided in this post to inform your purchasing decisions over the next month for school and beyond. You can use the questions provided to guide your research ahead of time, or when making spontaneous purchases in stores. Just remember: every purchase you make has an impact, whether you are buying food, clothing, furniture, paper, or anything else!