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Sustainable procurement: don’t let the pursuit of perfect be the enemy of progress

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The crucial role of local government in facilitating our response to the climate emergency has long been understood. Through local planning, targeted investment and community engagement, councils can be the catalyst for change.

With our built environment and associated manufacturing sectors collectively representing more than 40% of global emissions, addressing the way we commission, construct, maintain and manage our built assets for a more sustainable future has never been more vital. Yet progress remains a long way behind the transformative pace required, and we continue to prevaricate about how to get there.

Providing sustainable procurement opportunities

Amongst the numerous innovative solutions to sustainable construction, one oft-overlooked avenue – that is particularly relevant to local authorities – is the procurement process. When councils invest directly in their own assets, through construction or maintenance, the opportunity to directly influence the way local business is done, and the local employment opportunities created, are at their maximum level. That is why the procurement process for our projects is so critical, bringing together the ambition of the client with the capability of the market. Plus, the decisions made at the very beginning of a project have a huge domino effect – not just on the project itself, but on the supply chain, the actors involved, and the industry at large.

Unfortunately, the emissions associated with capital expenditure (on roads and buildings) frequently go un-measured and unmanaged because they fall into “Scope 3” categories; the emissions associated with expenditure by local authorities. As a result, construction emissions in council-led projects frequently fall outside local authority carbon reduction plans. Yet construction works, when Scope 3 is taken into account, can typically represent 45-55% of a council’s total emissions.

An industry in need of change

The construction sector is in desperate need of a regulatory accelerator pedal to drive change. In my view, the recently implemented Procurement Act 2023 was a missed opportunity to give our carbon reduction policies a mandate in law; to harness the co-benefits that carbon-conscious procurement can bring. SCAPE continues to support parliamentary lobbying for embodied carbon controls to be introduced through building regulations.

So, what action can councils take now?

In the absence of wider regulation, procurement remains the most impactful lever that councils can use to drive change in their construction projects and their local supply chains:

Signal a change; as a client of your local construction supply chain, communicate that you plan to manage emissions in your projects and invite supply chain engagement on what this means.

Measure, then manage. To control your Scope 3 footprint, you need to manage the emissions in your construction projects. Ensure your procurement strategy includes allocating responsibility for carbon measurement in your project teams.

Put social value to work. The Social Value Act allows us to reward a supply chain that returns positive environmental impact. Keeping a focus on local labour and supply chain spend supports resilient local businesses but also ensures the transport emissions linked to your project are reduced. Social value strategies can also drive the development of green skills in areas you feel are a priority locally.

Set targets for carbon reduction. Be aspirational and encourage your project teams to work towards ambitious industry standards.

Bust myths about affordability. All stakeholders in the construction process need to challenge perceptions that sustainable construction practices are more expensive. While some of the technologies that we need for a perfect industry are not affordable for customers, the methods we need to significantly make progress are widely available and commercially accessible:

  1. Build less – challenge the need for new assets.
  2. Build with less – when you must build, challenge your design team to be frugal on specifications, especially where carbon intensive materials like cement and steel are concerned. This will save money, as well as carbon.
  3. Waste less – we over specify, over order and over produce in terms of construction materials. Our industry fills the equivalent of a Premier League football ground with waste every day, at a cost of over £2bn annually! Less waste = less carbon = more productive projects.

That’s enough of a challenge, and for any local authority, the key is incremental improvement. Done well, procurement can be the silver bullet local authorities need to drive genuine sustainability across their built assets. We know that we aren’t going fast enough to address the climate emergency, and that we need another accelerator, but we can’t let perfect stand in the way of progress. If what we build this year is better than what we built last year, then we are on the right path.

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Written by:

Chris Clarke
Performance and Improvement Director, SCAPE Group