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A National Audit Office report has found that government has strengthened its drive to purchase more environmentally sustainable goods and services. In 2005 the government set a target to be recognised by 2009 as one of the leaders in the EU in sustainable procurement. However a number of departments are not yet on course to be practising sustainable procurement across their businesses by the end of 2009.

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The NAO report, which reviewed actions taken by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) and five of the largest spending departments, found that some have introduced initiatives which are reducing environmental impact and in some cases also saving money. For example, the DWP estimates that it has saved £3.6 million and 3,000 tonnes CO2 in 2007-08 by reducing the business miles travelled by department staff in their own vehicles. The OGC is collaborating with departments in the establishment of framework contracts for sustainable products, to drive sustainable outcomes and achieve savings.
Government has yet to set quantifiable targets for departments, who instead assess their progress in embedding sustainable procurement practices against the “Flexible Framework” model. According to their self-assessments for 2007-08, 8 out of 22 departments reported that they are only at level one of the Framework (out of five) indicating that they have laid only the foundations of good practice. Of the departments that the NAO examined, only the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency (NHS PASA) reported that it is practising sustainable procurement across its business, although the DWP is close to achieving the same level.

The government has also set itself mandatory minimum environmental standards for the procurement of goods – “Quick Wins”. In 2007-08, 15 out of 21 departments reported that they were compliant with these standards, although six of these 15 did not have systems to measure their compliance. Methods of assessing environmental costs and benefits are complex and hence expensive, and are not being used frequently by departments. The Office of Government Commerce needs to clarify how these evaluation methods should be used.

"Minimising environmental impact is recognised by government as a key criterion of good procurement. In 2008 progress was made by departments, but only some are on target to be practising sustainable procurement across their business by the end of this year. Procurement decisions need to be supported by a more thorough understanding of environmental benefits and costs, so that departments can show that their procurement meets the twin requirements of sustainability and value for money."

Central government and its agencies, excluding the NHS, spent £54.7 billion in 2007-08 on the procurement of non-capital goods and services. In March 2008 the government created the post of Chief Sustainability Officer, supported by a Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement at the Office of Government Commerce.

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office


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