Specify Sustainability


Define the minimum and desired sustainability criteria that will ensure you attract and can evaluate suppliers that will align with your procurement and sustainability objectives.

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Turn your requirements into specifications

Translate your procurement needs into specifications based on the planning work carried out. Separate your sustainability elements into outcome-based specifications that allow suppliers to propose innovative sustainable solutions, and technical specifications, that define more precisely that the product or service meets certain minimum quality, safety, or environmental standards.1 These specifications will set your expectations and demonstrate to suppliers that you are considering key sustainability risks, KPIs, and impacts in the procurement. Bids which do not comply with technical specifications often need to be rejected (particularly in many public procurement jurisdictions), so only include essential sustainability elements and leave some space for suppliers to meet additional expectations within the contract.

Distinguish between minimum and desirable sustainability criteria

Looking ahead to the SELECT stage, consider which criteria should be mandatory (supplier selection and exclusion criteria and technical specifications) and those that are desired (award criteria). Lay out what is "most preferred" to "not accepted", and consider if the criteria relate to the materials, product or service (for instance, an EPEAT computer or FSC certified wood), supplier practices and experiences (for instance, by giving preference to suppliers that source renewable energy), or methods of contract delivery (such as using zero emission logistics). While some new suppliers could meet expectations immediately, consider how to support existing suppliers or SMEs to adapt and elevate to the new standards across the contract (see also EXPLORE MARKET for more on this). 

EXAMPLE: NatWest supports suppliers in sustainable improvement

NatWest introduced sustainability clauses across their template supply contracts2 but balanced the more robust demands by recognising they were introducing new climate-transition clauses to suppliers. The NatWest team sought a proportional position by building flexibility into contracts for suppliers to improve scores over time and collaborating with suppliers to identify and support reasonable improvements.3

EXAMPLE: Government contracts require climate commitment 

The UK government's minimum criteria for large government contracts (above £5m per year) now requires that bidders have a credible commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.4

EXAMPLE: Ikea develops multi-tier supplier requirements

Ikea has developed multi-tier supplier requirements, including minimum and desired criteria. The IWAY Standard, as it is called, has four levels: "Must – required at all times; Basic – required within 12 months; Advanced – beyond minimum compliance; Excellent – best practices applicable depending on priorities."⁵ Ikea has defined specific criteria for each of its ten issue categories. For instance, their Waste Management category has Basic criteria, "G 9.5 Waste is not incinerated on site, unless for the purpose of recovering energy", and Excellence criteria, "G 9.9 All waste is reused or recycled."

Take a collaborative contract approach

In market conditions where suppliers need support and collaboration, consider making sustainability criteria optional instead of a mandatory prerequisite. Instead, allow both new and existing suppliers to meet your expectations within the contract's duration through clauses, incentives and cooperative activities. This approach encourages a shift towards sustainability and prevents potential bias towards larger suppliers with sustainability processes in place, thus levelling the playing field and spreading sustainability more broadly in the value chain.

Draw upon sustainability certifications and standards

Where appropriate, use eco and social labels or industry-wide standards and initiatives as a minimum requirement or evaluation criteria, taking advantage of consistent, verified, and industry recognised approaches6. Choose the correct standards by ensuring they include up-to-date sustainability criteria, mandatory independent verification methods, and a system of industry accountability and consequences.7 8 Be cautious about an over-reliance on standards as the only means of assessing and ensuring the sustainability of your purchases, especially for social issues. For instance, research has documented persistent problems in the effectiveness of social auditing and ethical certification schemes when it comes to detecting, addressing, and preventing forced labour.9

EXAMPLE: Example of minimum certification: FSC certification

Certification from the Forest Stewardship Council demonstrates that a product comes from responsibly managed FSC-certified forests (FSC 100%) or is made from 100% recycled materials (FSC Recycled). A third option is a mixture of materials from FSC-certified forests, recycled materials, and FSC-controlled wood (FSC Mix). FSC-certified products can be specified when procuring, for example, paper supplies, office furniture, or construction materials.

Buying Green! A Handbook on Green Public Procurement cover

Buying Green! A Handbook on Green Public Procurement

A European Commission tool to align public sector spending with sustainability goals. Find guidance on defining sustainability specs in “Chapter 3: Defining contract requirements” (pages 28-41) and “Chapter 4: Selecting tenderers” (pages 42-49).

Guide 4 - Sustainable Procurement: Define specifications and invite tenders cover

Guide 4 - Sustainable Procurement: Define specifications and invite tenders

This guide from the New Zealand Government focuses on integrating sustainable procurement into practice. It will help you to identify and specify your sustainability criteria for the procurement of both goods or services.

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ITC Standards Map

A sustainability standards database developed by the UN and other international partners. With over 300 standards listed, it can help you find, compare, and track standards relevant to your value chain.

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Impact Sourcing Standard

BSR and GISC's Impact Sourcing Standard outlines supplier requirements and best practices for inclusive employment. It prioritises suppliers offering opportunities to vulnerable individuals, aligning with your sourcing priorities.

Environmental Criteria for Sustainable Public Procurement cover

Environmental Criteria for Sustainable Public Procurement

This tool from the Government of the Netherlands provides a database of environmental and social criteria for commonly procured items including, office supplies, buildings, energy, and transport. You can use it compile a list of environmental specifications for your purchases.

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Supplier Transformation Framework

This guide by Transform to Net Zero provides an action-oriented framework on aligning supplier expectations for net zero transformation to accelerate Scope 3 reduction efforts.