We all know construction is fragmented, supply networks are complex and sustainability issues are messy and wicked (and yes, they are academic terms too!). This is the world I have explored over the last three years, looking at sustainable procurement through the lens of life cycle thinking, and relating this to procurement teams within a main contractor.  So now, 91,000 words of a PhD thesis written (a challenge in itself), I wanted to share a few points with you that I hope you might find thought provoking as you consider your own sustainable procurement strategies; possibly as part of ISO20400.

Understanding impact – a procurement perspective

Most procurement specialists procure products or services, they don’t buy a ‘building’ – they often don’t see the bigger (life-cycle) picture. To appreciate how this influenced views I carried out an exercise with a group of 50 main contractor procurement team members. I asked them to think about a building, and its different lifecycle stages as parts of the supply network – so raw materials suppliers, manufactures, logistics (pre-operational), organisations involved in the actual construction (construction) and finally the users and maintainers of the asset (use). The procurement team’s average response overestimated the importance of carbon in the construction phase by around 700% – they had not appreciated fully where carbon emissions existed across the life cycle of an asset. For the procurement team, seeing their responses in light of the importance of pre-operational and in-use carbon, made sense of increasing requests for ‘sustainable’ products; for the sustainability team it was a useful insight into the procurement perspective.

Supply network actors may have one aim but many goals – it all depends on their role

Still focusing on the whole life of an asset, if you begin to explore the supply network that lies behind these different life phases it becomes clear that even when the network comes together with one aim it may have many goals. Using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as major global goals and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) timber as the ‘aim’ I examined how organisations with different roles identified with the SDGs. Based on a UK main contractor case study, it was fascinating to see that a materiality survey with key clients and staff identified five  SDG goals they felt the contractor should look to achieve, primarily focusing on social value. To these, the main contractor added a further four goals, including climate change and responsible consumption and production. If we then move upstream to the FSC, they had identified 11 goals that their work supported. Strikingly, only two goals were common across these upstream and downstream points in the supply chain; gender equality (SDG 5) and decent work, economic growth (SDG 8). This reinforced the position that principles and goals are individual, and vary between cultures, industrial sectors, organisations of different sizes, etc. They develop within an organisation through the complex interaction of information, experience and surrounding behaviours. This would suggest that even when a network may have a single aim or shared value, individual actors may have different goals and that a ‘top down’ setting of goals might be ineffective or possibly even detrimental. If you’d like to read more on this thinking and its application to modern slavery a paper has been published in Sustainability.

Poster of UN SDG
UN Sustainable Development Goals

It is possible to be too sustainable?

And the final thought in this collection is; how important a life-cycle approach can be in putting effort where it is most effective. This is something many sustainability practitioners will appreciate! More than any other example I saw during the research, the ‘case of the waterless urinals’, typified the importance of life-cycle thinking at a supply network level. Water efficiency, on site, is a target for all main contractors and costs money and staff time to manage and record. Annual incremental improvement targets drive action, reaching something of a technology pinnacle with the waterless urinal. Not wasting water is important, but with only 2-5% of all water consumed during the construction phase, could this effort be better spent elsewhere? In this case, was the contractor trying to be ‘too sustainable’? Working with high water consuming suppliers in areas of water scarcity may perhaps offer better sustainability outcomes.

Life-cycle discussions are not new in the sustainability arena. However, presenting this work, within the context of the supply network stimulated procurement professionals to think differently. Whole life approaches not only impact sustainable procurement strategies but can help put into perspective the roles of key suppliers and provide the basis for KPI discussions with clients. I hope this gives you something to consider too. It’s been a fascinating few years.

Erica Russell, Doctoral Practitioner, The University of Surrey

The University of Surrey, Centre for Environment and Sustainability has led complex systems thinking for over 25 years. It specialises in industry led research and operates a Practitioner Doctorate programme, embedding PhD students into host companies.