Is Circular Procurement the New Sustainable?

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Written by Ashleigh McLennan – Sustainable Procurement and Economy Officer from ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.
This text was originally published on Green Growth Knowledge Platform.

Over thirty years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development – more commonly known as the Brundtland Commission –  declared that “the time has come to break out of past patterns”, kick-starting three decades worth of sustainable development programmes.

But despite international efforts to improve economic efficiency, decrease environmental impacts, and ultimately decouple economic growth from environmental damage, the pattern remains fundamentally the same: resources are extracted, products are made, consumers consume, and waste – of materials, of energy, of investment – occurs at each stage.

It’s become clear that we need more than incremental change. We need transformation, a radical and fast transition to an economy which respects and operates within environmental boundaries while also meeting the material needs of a growing global population. It’s in this context that the idea of a ‘circular economy’ has emerged. But when a circle has no beginning or end, finding where to start is no easy task.

From the perspective of governments, a range of governance mechanisms are available. They can work directly with business, encouraging voluntary agreements among industry, or introducing regulatory measures. They can also try to influence the market from above or below, running consumer- education initiatives or financing research & development programmes. But one of the most direct ways that government can incentivize the transition to a circular economy is supporting circular businesses and business models through its own spending.

Public procurement – or the acquisition of goods and services by government or public sector organisations – provides a direct means for governments to engage in the market and accounts for anything between 8% and 25% of the GDP of OECD countries.  Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) has been adopted by a number of public authorities – although not all – and is an effective way of reducing the environmental impact of a government’s purchasing. But a circular approach to procurement can take its sustainability credentials one step further, from a “less bad” approach to a holistic, lifecycle approach.

Take furniture, for example. A typical SPP approach would focus on the materials used to make a new item of furniture (does the wood come from a certified sustainable source? Is the product free from harmful chemicals?). But when you consider the full life cycle of furniture, the materials and components account for 80-90% of environmental impacts, and manufacturing, packaging and distribution the rest. Next to zero emissions are related to use. A circular procurement approach builds in more options than buying new – including reusing or refurbishing existing items, leasing products as a service instead of buying goods, or sharing agreements with other departments or authorities. In one example, Public Health Wales diverted 41 tonnes of waste from landfill and saved 134 tonnes of CO2e through a circular furniture tender, while also supporting local furniture remanufacturers and social businesses (see the full case study here).

A range of possibilities and examples from different sectors can be also be found in the European Commission’s Public Procurement for a Circular Economy brochure, written by ICLEI in 2017, and circular procurement will also be one of four complementary threads running throughout the EcoProcura conference (3-5 October, Nijmegen, Netherlands), which marks the 20th year of the conference series . Anyone interested in learning more about the latest tools, good practice, processes, research, projects and initiatives in public procurement is invited to join us at EcoProcura here.

But to answer the initial question – is circular the new sustainable? I would answer no. As the use of circular economy initiatives grows, it is important that we remember that circularity itself is not an objective – it is a means for achieving sustainability. To go back to the furniture example, purchasing a chair, for instance, which has a circular design (i.e. can be easily repaired or its components easily separated for recycling) is not in itself sustainable if the chair ends up in a landfill anyway after 5 years, maybe because the user did not know it could be repaired, or the company was not required in the contract to provide repair or take-back services. Circular does not automatically equal sustainable, but with sustainability as its guiding principle, circular procurement has the power to radically reshape markets and finally break us out of our past patterns.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the GGKP or its Partners.
Photo: sciencefreak (on