Buying sustainability: the SAPIENS NETWORK

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In this post, Professor Martin Trybus discusses the means and techniques to facilitate sustainability through procurement


Photograph of Professor Martin Trybus

The planet is facing significant challenges: climate change, environmental decline, social injustice, discrimination of women and minorities, or human rights violations. The United Nations (UN) have defined their Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to address most of these challenges. However, the arsenal of instruments to implement these SDGs is limited. One of these instruments is public procurement.

Public procurement is the process of governments (on all levels) buying the goods, services, and works they need to operate from private companies. It is not about what to buy but who to buy it from. As this involves spending the money of the taxpayer, 14% of GDP in the Member States of the European Union (EU) for example, most governments aim for ‘value for money’, for buying under the economically best possible terms. Any government will want inter alia a low price, high quality, and reliable delivery. This requires transparency and competition in the procurement process, involving the publication of contract opportunities, prescribed procedures and award criteria, and review procedures for aggrieved bidders. Moreover, the procurement agencies of countries that participate in trade agreements, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the EU, must not discriminate against bidders from other countries participating in the same trade agreement.

However, there is an ever-growing movement towards using the public procurement function for more than the objectives of value for money or international trade. The State should also aim for sustainability objectives, inter alia to promote a clean environment, labour rights, sex equality, minorities, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs), to fight climate change and inequality when buying from the private sector. This is not least closely connected to the SDGs of the UN, making procurement an instrument to implement these goals, to make the world a better place, a planet with a future.

The laws and policies governing the procurement process are based on the ‘primary objectives’ of public procurement highlighted above: value for money and trade. Promoting sustainability through public procurement involves changes in these laws and policies. For example, the rules that govern the description of a good or service to be procured, the technical specifications, need to be adapted to allow green and social specifications. This raises concerns about the effect on the efficiency of the procurement process and value for money, of compliance with trade agreements, and on how to enforce such requirements. The ‘primary objectives’ might be compromised when sustainability objectives are implemented. Which sustainability objectives can effectively be implemented through public procurement? What is the right balance between the potentially conflicting objectives? What are the best instruments and techniques to facilitate sustainability through procurement? How can the law, policy, and economic aspects of sustainability and procurement be reconciled?

Many of these questions will be addressed in a new research and training project involving Birmingham Law School: SAPIENS – Sustainability and Procurement in International, European, and National Systems – which has been awarded a €4 million Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Innovative Training Network (ITN) grant by the European Research Agency (European Commission).

SAPIENS combines 10 universities from eight countries, including the University of Birmingham (Birmingham Law School), led by the University of Turin, and academic and non-academic partner organisations in seven countries. At the heart of the project are 15 PhD projects on various multidisciplinary aspects of Sustainable Public Procurement linked to the achievement of the UN SDGs (law, economics, business studies, administrative studies, etc.). The Early Stage Researchers (ESR) conducting these PhD projects will look at promoting sustainability through public procurement in relation to: (1) the use of free trade agreements (project based at Birmingham Law School), (2) solutions at global level, (3) the circular economy, (4) Industry 4.0, (5) collaboration, (6) Life Cycle Costing, (7) contract performance, (8) human rights, (9) minorities and disadvantaged groups, (10) gender-smart procurement, (11) SMEs (project based at Birmingham Law School), (12) fighting climate change, and to sustainability in relation to specific sectors: (13) construction, (14) textiles, and (15) food. The 15 postgraduate research students, two of which are based in Birmingham under the supervision of Martin Trybus and Henok Asmelash (projects 1 and 11), will attend a common training programme (headed by Martin Trybus), participate in common public engagement, dissemination and impact activities, and benefit from relevant secondments in public institutions, think tanks, lobbyists, and international organisations. Hence the nature and structure of SAPIENS NETWORK are international, interdisciplinary, and intersectoral.

The project runs from 2021 to 2025 and is coordinated from the University of Turin (Italy) led by the Network Coordinator and Director of Research Roberto Caranta assisted by a project coordinator, the Director of Training Martin Trybus (University of Birmingham), the Dissemination and Communication Lead Marta Andhov (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and the Ethics, Open Science and Equal Opportunities Champion Małgorzata Koszewska (Łodz University of Technology, Poland). The team is completed by leading sustainability experts from the Corvinus University of Budapest (Hungary), Tor Vergata University of Rome II (Italy), Hasselt University (Belgium), the University of Gävle (Sweden), Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj Napoca (Romania), and the University of Greenwich (UK). Moreover, 18 partner organisation, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organisation, George Washington University, the Icelandic Procurement Agency, Stichting Fair Trade Advocacy Office, Eating City, as well as national agencies, public purchasers and lobbyists are contributing to the training programme. The project will not only offer extraordinary global research and training opportunities to the 15 ESRs and external participants but will also contribute to increasing the overall quality and innovation of doctoral training in Europe and beyond.

The research objectives of SAPIENS NETWORK are to produce significant research results in law, economics, business studies and social science, make them openly available, facilitate the utilisation of that knowledge by policymakers, think tanks, business, and the legal and other professions, and to train a uniquely qualified cohort with professional prospects inside but also beyond academia. The added value of the research project from a pure research perspective will include fresh insights into the promotion of already well-established and researched sustainability goals such as the protection of the environment and labour rights, but also evolving objectives such as gender equality and climate change.  Moreover, the use of yet under-researched instruments, such as the procurement chapters of third generation free trade agreements will provide new insights. Most importantly, the synergy effects of an interdisciplinary and international research network encompassing 15 distinct but interconnected research projects, the most extensive project if its kind to date, in close communication with relevant actors outside academia, have the clear potential to move our understanding of the use of public procurement to promote the SDGs forward. Watch this space https//!


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