Working together to promote social responsibility and sustainability in supply chains

Liz Cooper, Research and Policy Manager in the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh talks about sustainable supply chains and how we can work together to successfully embed them.

Universities buy a wide range of goods and services, including electronics, construction materials and services, vehicles, furniture, stationery, laboratory supplies, food, consultancy, and much more. Local and global supply chains can be linked to just about any social responsibility and sustainability issue. Workers who grow food or timber, extract minerals, work in manufacturing, or work through employment agencies may be experiencing poor working conditions and pay, or even exploited to the extent of modern slavery.

Environmental degradation may occur when resources are extracted from the ground, or land use is changed towards monoculture, or from factories polluting ground, air and water sources with chemicals and carbon emissions. A lot of packaging, often plastic, is used for almost everything we buy, and further harmful emissions are produced from transport throughout supply chains.

So there’s clearly a lot that could be done to mitigate negative impacts of our purchases. I work in the University’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which works closely with the Procurement Office and others on a programme of work to embed the above considerations, and more, into procurement practices where possible. The Procurement Office has been working on embedding social responsibility in procurement for many years, for example working with students to help the University become a Fairtrade University in 2004, joining Electronics Watch as a founding member, collaborating with the sector on a supply chain code of conduct, and informing relevant Scottish sustainable procurement regulation.

More recently, we have been working together to trial a set of Sustainable Procurement Prioritisation Tools developed by the Scottish Government, in light of the Scottish Sustainable Procurement Duty, (2014, applied since April 2016) to assess five key categories: Information and Communication Technology/Electronics; Travel; Estates/Construction; Laboratories; and Food/Catering. This has involved bringing relevant stakeholders together (including staff who purchase or use the relevant goods and services, and researchers with relevant expertise) to discuss and evaluate risks and opportunities related to different environmental and social aspects, from a whole life-cycle perspective. It’s been a challenging task – requiring time from a variety of colleagues, and sometimes involving differences of opinion regarding how significant a risk is, or how much scope the University has to do something about it.

We have published short briefing papers which summarise the key issues and prioritised actions related to the different categories, and behind the scenes, the detailed spreadsheet tools inform procurement strategies. We will report annually on progress against the prioritised actions identified, which range from asking local suppliers to pay a ‘living wage’, to investigating carbon emissions from reusable glassware versus disposable plasticware in labs, to engaging suppliers on sustainable palm oil, to researching best practice regarding sustainability in hotels.

There are some issues that the University has highlighted as key areas of focus, for example we have a policy on conflict minerals, and so have committed to embedding questions about conflict minerals in relevant procurement processes, and raising awareness broadly. We are also ensuring that consideration of how to mitigate the risk of modern slavery is embedded throughout all categories, given the UK Modern Slavery Act (2015) reporting requirements, and increasing knowledge of the issue. We have recently secured EU funding in collaboration with ten civil society partners across Europe, including Electronics Watch, to work on a three-year project entitled ‘Make ICT Fair’, which will help develop our knowledge and work on both of these aspects with regards to electronics purchasing. The University has made commitments regarding exploring how to shift to a circular economy, being part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Network Universities scheme, and having fostered academic and student research in this area.

The ultimate goal is to ensure decent livelihoods in all supply chains, a circular model of resource use, eliminating environmental degradation. But this is a big goal, and we can’t meet it alone, so we welcome collaboration on supply chain sustainability with our suppliers, and with other universities and organisations, for example through the EAUC Sustainable Procurement Topic Support Network and the new HEPA Responsible Procurement Group.

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