Sustainability is a team game!

From numerous discussions over the last few months, it is evident that interest in sustainability in the social care sector is growing.  Support for the new Social Care Sustainability Alliance that I chair, engagement in Autumna’s Go Green initiative, and the growing number of conference discussions, podcasts, and media articles on sustainability all point to a sea change in the sector’s approach to facing up to its responsibilities for the environment, our communities and our people.  This is really positive news, which we can all celebrate.

As providers make a start on their sustainability journeys, it is really important that we realise how success will best be achieved by engaging others involved in our organisations.  In particular, our social care organisations sit within a complex web of supply chains that we can influence to help our own efforts and to multiply our impact more broadly on this agenda.

The first step to involving our supply chains is looking at our procurement approach.  Most organisations will have a Procurement Policy that sets out the process and criteria that apply to all purchasing decisions.  Traditionally, these policies focussed on pricing and quality, which are obviously critical.  Broadening out the criteria to include sustainability-related issues can really help organisations to address their own sustainability targets and effect wider change.

Beyond price and quality, there is a range of sustainability issues that a good procurement policy can cover:

  • Business ethics and compliance.  You would hope it wouldn’t need to be said, but just making clear that you expect your suppliers to meethigh ethical standards sends an important message! In particular, you can highlight that your suppliers should guarantee key basic standards, including: compliance with law; fair competition and fair-trade practices; anti-corruption and anti-bribery; business integrity and transparency; and, privacy and intellectual property rights.
  • Environmental impacts.  As you try to understand and reduce your own organisation’s impacts on the environment, can your suppliers demonstrate that they understand the environmental impacts of their products and services?  Better still, do they have a Net Zero Carbon target in place and a plan as to how they will achieve this?  And do they have carbon reporting systems in place to enable your organisation to accurately report on its Scope 3 carbon impacts?
  • Staff welfare and respect.  As a minimum, suppliers should confirm that they follow national minimum wage requirements and adhere to Fair Wage and Living Wage requirements, and, that they have procedures in place to comply with the Modern Slavery Act 2015.  But do they also report publicly on their gender pay gap? Do they promote Diversity Equity & Inclusion within their workplaces? What have they got in place to support the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff?  Do they promote professional skills development through employee training and promotion, and offering employment opportunities to the local community?
  • Supporting local communities.  Can your suppliers demonstrate their own positive social impacts and responsible procurement practices, such as buying local, including a diverse supply chain, and supporting community engagement?  You might also prioritise local independent businesses and people in the localities in which you operate.

Setting out the above expectations is becoming increasingly important in organisations’ procurement approaches.  Given that as much as 60% of an organisation’s carbon footprint comes from its Scope 3 emissions – ie by those that an organisation is indirectly responsible for up and down its supply chain – ignoring this in your own strategy to reduce your carbon impact will significantly reduce your chances of success.  That is why so many organisations now set out sustainability criteria in their procurement approaches.  And this is only going to increase. 

We only have to look to the NHS to see what is likely to be coming to the social care sector on this issue.  The new NHS contractual requirements for healthcare providers now place very clear contractual obligations on providers around carbon reporting.  Currently, all large NHS contracts require Carbon Reduction Plans for suppliers’ emissions; in 2024, this will apply to all procurements in the NHS.  In 2027, all suppliers will be required to publicly report targets, emissions and publish a Carbon Reduction Plan for global emissions aligned to the NHS net zero target, for all their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

More broadly, sustainable procurement just makes good sense.  Key benefits highlighted in research on sustainable procurement include: improved risk management; costs savings; promotion of innovation and differentiation; increased turnover; and, improved talent acquisition and retention. Again, a sustainability approach is proven to be good business rather than an optional extra or a nice to have.

The thorny issue is just how to start on a new sustainable procurement approach. You will have worked with most important suppliers for some years and developed a good relationship with them.  You may be very reliant on a number of suppliers and they may be core to your business.  Clearly, overnight change isn’t going to be possible in many circumstances. 

As with so much of the sustainability agenda, making the start is the important thing.  Any change, however small, is useful.  So, perhaps just introduce your new approach to new suppliers and have a set of basic and preferred criteria?  And allow for improvements over time, with an indication of a time-frame by which you will increase expectations and applicability (as with the NHS’s approach above).

For me, this is another example of starting the conversation and broadening out the range of those working to tackle these vital challenges.  As you start these conversations with your suppliers, so they will start similar conversations with their other clients.  And, so the ripples of change spread!  As the proverb has it: to go fast, go alone; to go far, go together.

First published in Caring Times