Leveraging public procurement as a political vehicle to promote the SDGs

Governments’ pledges for sustainable development are flourishing, most notably as they signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But how can they translate such pledges into practice? Voluntary Sustainability Standards, or VSS, have been recognised as potentially transformative tools for sustainable trade, and they offer great potential for governments to realise their sustainability commitments through two main avenues. First, public procurement represents, on average, 12 percent of GDP in OECD countries, and up to 30 percent of GDP in developing countries. The magnitude of such spending, in combination with the aggravating need for sustainable production and consumption, justify why sustainable public procurement (SPP) is imperative. Besides, the growing inclusion of non-trade objectives, such as sustainable development, into trade policies requires new enforcement mechanisms. VSS therefore appear as relevant tools for governments to complement and support their sustainability objectives.

There are however many barriers that needs to be considered where SPP is concerned. Some of these barriers include, the perceived additional costs of goods where labels and certifications are concerned, the lack of familiarity with SPP- suggesting additional workload and further complexity to reimplement and internalise the concept, concerns with the availability of sustainably produced goods and services and finally, the lack of government incentives to influence the general adoption, etc.

SPP is still considered as a relatively new concept, where many countries especially in the EU are striving to implement the Green Public Procurement process. Thus, UNFSS have been requested by some of its National Platform partners to look at the interaction between Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) and public procurement policies. Some of the most common ways to integrate VSS into SPP procedures includes the integration of sustainability standards criteria into public tender and referencing sustainability standards as a “proof of compliance” in public tenders. In reference to the new EU directive for public procurement that was adopted in 2014, contracting authorities can directly require sustainability certification.

“Governments have the power to readdress massive procuring practices through the emphasis of evidences in the provisions of labour law, environmental protection law and the social security legislations. Such topics are critical in the eyes of public policy and have been raised by our National VSS Platform member states. Hence, for the benefit of the public administration and policy makers (academia and relevant associations included), the UNFSS Flagship series leverages on the expertise of renowned universities and research centres from around the world. These reports are published biennially and follows a strict framework of impartiality and adequacy of information.”

Santiago Fernandez de Cordoba, UNFSS Coordinator

UNFSS 4th Flagship Report “Scaling up VSS through Public Procurement and Trade Policy”

The aim of the 4th Flagship Report therefore involves understanding the role of governments as a vehicle to drive the adoption of VSS through public procurement and trade policy. More specifically, the report will first analyse the evolution of VSS uptake. Next, it delves into questions on how to scale up such uptake. It will identify the drivers for adoption of VSS in the context of public procurement, while pointing out to the dilemmas that governments might face in that matter. This will open a dialogue on how to create synergies between VSS and public procurement. Subsequently, in terms of trade policy, the report will look at the interplay between the evolution of trade policy and non-trade objectives, more specifically sustainable development, and it will explore some of the possible approaches to integrate VSS in trade policy.

This report will be discussed at the first VSS Academic Advisory Council meeting and will be published in Fall 2020. The VSS Academic Advisory Council is composed of renowned academic experts from across the globe and has been established to function as a think-tank that brings together a wide variety of academic backgrounds, ranging from public international law, global governance, international political economy, economics and public management, to human rights and sustainability studies. This multidisciplinary approach not only reflects the implicit acknowledgement of the complexity and multi-faceted nature of analysing VSS effectiveness and the challenges associated therewith, but it also offers researchers from different thematic and methodological schools a chance to collaborate with and learn from one another.

The contribution that VSS can make towards achieving the SDGs will depend on their effectiveness. “Effectiveness” of VSS can be defined according to multiple dimensions of which at least two are of crucial importance. The first dimension focuses on the impact of VSS on a range of social, economic and environmental indicators. The second one focuses on the uptake of VSS. These two dimensions are interrelated. VSS which generate significant impact on the ground and transform the way producers work but are hardly used will not result in a transformation towards sustainability on a large scale. Hence, scaling up or providing incentives for increased uptake of VSS is crucial. These incentives can be provided by governments through public procurement and trade policy. It is time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of integrating VSS in government policies.

Dr. Axel Marx, Deputy Director, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies

Questions? You may direct them to Ruby Lambert

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.