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How to buy goods and services sustainably

Every purchase we make has financial, environmental and social impacts. The funds we spend should generate value for money along with benefits to the UEA and society whilst minimising damage to the environment. 

The UEA markets itself as a sustainable organisation. The UEA has a non pay budget of £84m, the way we spend this money has a huge impact on the sustainability of our University. Everyone that has responsibility for spending University funds also has a responsibility to ensure that the goods and services they buy are sustainable.

The best way to minimise your impact is to not buy at all, before making a purchase you should assess whether it is really necessary or if you are just trying to ‘budget burn’. If the purchase is necessary alternatives to an outright purchase should be assessed such as borrowing, hiring, sharing, refurbishing and reusing old items etc. UEA uses an online exchange platform called WARPit to enable sharing of resources. All staff are able to register and upload or claim items. 

However you are acquiring goods or services, thought should be given to sustainability at the outset. It is much easier to get sustainable products/ services if consideration is given at the outset – specifications can then be adapted which suppliers must adhere to. Once the contract is let or purchase made, our ability to influence or make an impact declines.

When making a purchase it is important to not just go on the initial purchase price as this often does not provide a sustainable option or present value for money. You should consider all costs involved with owning and maintaining the product/ service over the period which you plan to use it. A key consideration is the energy efficiency of the product. Whole life costs may also include spare parts and maintenance, disposal costs, average lifespan etc. When whole life costs are taken into account it can make items with a slightly higher initial purchase price, better value and more sustainable. 

A comparison exercise was carried out on a Ricoh and a comparable HP printer using whole life costs. The HP machine was much cheaper to purchase but consumables were very expensive in comparison to the Ricoh device. When whole life costs were assessed including purchase price the HP came out at 17p per page printed, the Ricoh was 3p per page – a significant difference. 

Many people worry that buying ‘green’ will cost more but this isn’t always the case. The new waste contract at the UEA has saved the University money and we are able to recycle more than we did under the previous contract. The financial aspect of a purchase is one of the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic), if a purchase will cost you more when looking at whole life costs then this is a legitimate reason to assess alternatives.  

There are a number of eco labels which you can use to help you specify and identify the more sustainable products. These include Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance on food products, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) on timber products and Energy Star on electrical goods.  There are hundreds of eco labels. The Government also produce buying standards which state minimum levels that should be asked for across a broad range of commodities.   

The Procurement Team are using the Flexible Framework, a self-assessment mechanism which allows organisations to measure and monitor their progress on sustainable procurement. It guides the team in methods for embedding sustainable procurement within the organisation. Activities have included the recent release of a sustainable procurement training package on blackboard, we would encourage all staff with responsibility for budgets and/ or spending to complete. The team also build sustainability into all of the contracts we work on. By using a formal UEA contract you can have the confidence that sustainability will have been taken into account.

For further information or guidance please contact Claire Woodcroft (ext. 2728).

Claire Woodcroft