It has been three years since The Public Procurement and Disposal of Property Act No. 1 of 2015 was assented to, and July 31, 2018 would make it three years since its partial proclamation. An act intended to, among other things, repeal the Central Tenders Board Act and establish an Office of Procurement Regulation. 

Of particular interest in my view, is the incredible potential that the legislation appears to have to promote sustainability at a national level. The Act has as one of its objectives to promote ‘local industry development, sustainable procurement and sustainable development, in public procurement and the disposal of public property’ and defines ‘sustainable procurement’ as ‘a process whereby public bodies meet their needs for goods, works or services in a way that achieves value for money on a long-term basis in terms of generating benefits not only to the public body, but also to the economy and the wider society, whilst minimising damage to the environment’. 

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago, as is the case in many countries, is the single largest procurer of goods, works and services. 

Imagine for a moment, a state sector in which every purchase decision from procuring a paper clip to procuring a prison, is designed to achieve value for money on a long-term basis in terms of generating benefits not only to the public body, but also to the economy and the wider society, whilst minimising damage to the environment — in other words, incorporating social, economic and environmental considerations into every procurement decision. A utopian idea some might argue. But what will it really take to move closer to this utopia? 

Apart from the very obvious steps that need to be taken including: establishment of the Office of Procurement Regulation; hiring the Procurement Regulator; establishment of the Public Procurement Review Board and Procurement Depository, etc.. there is much more required for the implementation of sustainable procurement. 

Achieving sustainability through public procurement goes beyond process and procedure; it requires a fundamental change in thinking and mindset, leading to a fundamental change in culture, and, with hundreds of public bodies and public-private partnership arrangements falling under the Act, this is no small task. We know that the most difficult thing to change in organisations is the culture. 

This change in thinking requires procurement that now moves far beyond factors like product cost and availability, to ask questions like: What are the products and their components made of? Who has made them? Where have they come from? How will the products be disposed of at their end of life? Perhaps the first consideration should be, is the purchase actually necessary? Sustainable procurement introduces concepts like resource reduction, ethical sourcing, life cycle value, fair trade, human rights, wages and working conditions into the procurement decision, and the list goes on. It requires us to unlearn many of the things that have become the norm, think differently and learn new approaches. For example, do we consider whether we are purchasing through ethical supply chains when procuring goods, works and services? 

The good news is that introducing sustainability into public procurement is perhaps the single most effective step that we can take on a national level to promote sustainable development and ensure that social, economic and environmental factors are given due consideration. It impacts on everything and everyone. The public sector is only one half of public procurement; the private sector too will have to shift their mindset to ensure that they can supply the ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’, ‘responsibly produced and sourced’ goods, works and services now being demanded. 

Sustainable procurement — a utopian idea? Perhaps, but in my admittedly biased view, this is one utopia worth working towards.