Why sustainable procurement may make universities greener

Public procurement processes can not only yield big savings, but also further promote the greening of universities. Every year, €2 trillion (US$2.35 trillion) of public expenditure in Europe is spent through procurement, which represents 14% of the European Union’s gross domestic product.

On average, Europe’s public universities spend up to 15% of their annual operational budgets on purchasing goods, services and works. For some of the larger institutions, this can represent up to €300 million per year.

Therefore, including sustainability and green criteria in procurement processes would have a major impact on broader efforts towards a greener future.

The procurement needs of universities are very diverse and cover a broad range of areas such as campus infrastructure (development, maintenance, housing, office equipment, sports facilities, utilities, etc), the research and innovation mission (equipment, consumables, library systems, labs, databases, etc), the learning and teaching mission (digitalisation, learning platforms, teaching materials and student recruitment, etc) and strategic and operational management (HR, payroll, travel and mobility, ICT and other services).

Purchasing these goods, services and works with a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle, compared to simply selecting the cheapest offer, will make a difference.

Of 305 institutions recently surveyed across Europe on the topic of greening*, the European University Association (EUA) found that 38% have a sustainable procurement process in place across the institution and 48% have one at least partially implemented.

This is promising, even though there is further potential for development.

While universities can, to some extent, implement this voluntarily by including clear and verifiable environmental criteria for products and services in the procurement process, procurement rules help hold practices to a common standard.

In most cases, public funding and regulatory frameworks oblige public universities to comply with EU procurement law (which is a strong driver towards green and sustainable procurement) as well as national procurement procedures.

The purchase of works, goods and services comes with different thresholds, above which the application of EU procurement law is applicable. A decisive move towards green procurement in national regulations will have a strong effect across Europe and will also guarantee a level playing field when it comes to public purchasing.

Best practice

In recent years, many national procurement rules have evolved from the lowest bidder principle to an ‘enhanced value’ principle that includes social and sustainability criteria.

Most EU member states now have a national action plan for green public procurement, with some including a general commitment to procure sustainable products and services.

The EUA’s 2018 comparative analysis of public procurement frameworks and practices in universities in selected EU member states includes several inspiring examples.

Austria is one of them, illustrating that an ambitious green action plan and supportive procurement frameworks enable universities to develop their own sustainable best practices and strategies.

Austria’s central procurement agency BBG, which handles all purchases for public institutions, plays a key role in this. Universities can use its services, which also include consulting.

The University of Graz, apart from using the BBG services, has a very comprehensive green procurement strategy that covers all purchases. They are strongly engaged in partnerships such as the Ökoprofit community, where they cooperate with the City of Graz to reduce operational costs and save resources.

The university is also a co-founding member of the Alliance of Sustainable Universities in Austria, created in 2012, which is committed to the goals of green transition and sustainable procurement, among others.

In France, higher education institutions equally benefit from central procurement agencies that also carry out sustainable procurement. Universities are also increasingly developing sustainable procurement strategies.

The University of Bordeaux, for example, included in its three-year procurement plan a priority aimed at developing sustainable purchasing by promoting the integration of environmental and social procurement clauses, the share of which should increase over time.

Another example from Ireland shows that universities, such as University College Cork, have a central role in the economy with respect to sustainable procurement by influencing practices of suppliers and manufacturers through their sustainable procurement policies.

The EUA procurement study includes many more illustrations of socially responsible and sustainable procurement, which can become inspiring models for other systems and institutions.

A multi-pronged approach

Recent developments have demonstrated that procurement is no longer just a technical tool to enable transparent and efficient purchasing. Instead, it has a strong steering effect to influence the achievement of the green transition.

Adequate European directives, policies and funding instruments, as well as ambitious action plans for sustainable procurement and the cooperation of all stakeholders at the national level, are essential to push the green transition forward.

The €750 billion (US$882 billion) Next Generation EU recovery instrument aims to invest 30% in climate targets. The bulk of the budget will go to investments that must be tendered either nationally or Europe-wide.

If these tenders include green criteria, then, in addition to the 30% target, there will be a significant boost to the green transition. Universities, which are already engaged in green procurement, could be at the forefront of this trend.

Thomas Estermann is director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association (EUA) with responsibilities for the EUA’s work aimed at strengthening universities’ autonomy, governance, management and their financial sustainability. This article was first published on the EUA’s Expert Voices blog.

*The full dataset of the EUA’s survey on greening in higher education will be published in the autumn of 2021. A recent EUA webinar series discussed the preliminary findings.