Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Buying sustainable goods and services

Every product or service your business buys has an impact on the environment. Sustainable purchasing is an approach to buying which can help you to reduce the impact of the goods and services you buy on the environment, human health and social conditions. This means making better choices about what you buy, how often and who you buy from, which could help you save money.

A product or service has environmental impacts throughout its life cycle from the raw materials and energy used to manufacture or supply it, to the way it is recycled or managed at the end of its life. Your purchases may also have social impacts, for example if you buy goods or services from organisations that have poor working conditions or pay a low wage.

This guide will help you make informed and sustainable choices when buying goods and services. It explains the benefits of sustainable procurement, how to buy goods and services sustainably and avoid unnecessary purchases. It also covers using environmental labels and how to select sustainable suppliers.

Additional resources

       

There's no legal requirement for you to purchase sustainably, or to buy sustainable goods and services, but it could help you to:

  • reduce your impact on the environment
  • address social issues and improve the livelihoods of individuals and communities
  • improve your business' reputation
  • save money over the life of a product or service.

Business benefits

Sustainable procurement can help your business to:

  • save money and reduce your materials, equipment and running costs, eg reducing the volume of waste you send to landfill could lower your operating costs, and by using energy and water efficient products and services you can significantly cut your utility bills
  • win new business and improve your prospects when tendering for work - some larger businesses and public sector organisations could ask to see how you manage your environmental and social impacts or ask you to meet certain sustainability standards
  • improve your reputation among staff, customers and the public
  • reduce your exposure to risk, eg by keeping up to date with changes to environmental legislation which could affect the products you buy
  • attract lenders or investors who work to environmental or ethical principles
  • take advantage of tax breaks such as the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme, which provides a tax incentive to businesses that invest in energy-saving and water-saving equipment, and low-emission vehicles
  • qualify for business support and loan schemes when buying energy-saving equipment such as interest-free energy efficiency loans from the Carbon Trust and, in Scotland, small business loans from the Energy Saving Trust Scotland.

Energy Saving Trust Scotland: Small business loans

Environmental and social benefits

By buying sustainable goods and services you can:

  • reduce your carbon emissions, eg by using renewable energy or buying energy efficient products to reduce your energy use
  • save natural resources, eg by choosing products and services that use recycled materials or waste as a raw material or resource
  • reduce waste sent to landfill, eg by buying products which can be reused or recycled
  • help your local or wider communities, eg by creating work for local suppliers or buying fairly traded goods to help improve living and working conditions
  • create a market for new sustainable goods and materials to help the green economy grow and create new green jobs.

By considering if you need to buy a particular product or service you can reduce your impact on the environment, save money and resources, and reduce waste and pollution.

If you assess your need to buy a product or service you may decide you don't need to make a purchase.

Before making a purchase, consider if you could cut down how much you buy, for example you could:

  • reuse an existing resource, eg redistributing IT equipment within your business
  • use a service rather than buying a product, eg renting your office furniture, but make sure that the products you hire are sustainable
  • buy longer lasting products, eg durable products that can be repaired and upgraded
  • avoid disposable products, eg using china plates and mugs instead of paper or plastic, or using rechargeable batteries
  • improve storage and stock control to help reduce waste and to only buy what you need, ie 'just in time' stock control
  • work with your suppliers to reduce their materials or resources, eg by using less packaging for transporting goods, alternative fuels for vehicles or renewable energy during manufacturing
  • encourage staff to use products efficiently, eg using energy efficient features will help reduce your energy use and carbon emissions
  • buy more efficient products, eg equipment that can perform multiple tasks like copying, printing and faxing, or that use renewable power, eg solar powered monitoring equipment or external lighting
  • buy items that can be taken back by the supplier or reused or recycled, eg using carpet tiles instead of sheet carpet - you can also replace these individually if damaged
  • buy products that have separable parts and can be repaired more easily.

Managing your purchasing

Once you have assessed whether you need to buy a product or service, you can start to consider how you can do this more sustainably.

You can improve your purchasing practices and take action to address cost, environmental and social issues at all stages of your procurement process.

Review what your business buys

You should analyse what goods and services your business buys. You can use this information to prioritise key areas within your business where you could be purchasing more sustainably.

You could prioritise the goods or services that cost you the most or those with the highest environmental or social impact.

Gathering this information before you start sustainable procurement will help you to:

  • cut whole life costs by identifying ways to improve your efficiency and reduce your consumption
  • identify where and how much you spend on what items
  • confirm which parts of your business buy products and services
  • set targets to buy more sustainably
  • develop a step-by-step plan to improve your purchasing.

Understand your sustainability risks and impacts

You should assess the sustainability risks of each purchase or contract over its life cycle. This will help you identify what you can do to minimise the environmental and social risks of your purchases.

It is good practice to use a risk-based approach. This means you should identify which of the sustainability impacts of the purchase have the highest risk and what you will need to do to remove or reduce these when making your purchase.

Assess the whole life costs

Consider all costs linked with your purchase (known as whole life costs), including raw materials, manufacture, maintenance and disposal, not just the cost of buying it.

This can help you to decide if it is better to buy a more expensive product or service initially to reduce costs in the longer term. Sustainable products may last longer, use less energy, water and materials, and produce less waste. They may also cost you less to dispose of at the end of their life.

Use environmental and social criteria

Include environmental and social measures in your purchasing process. You can include this as part of your supplier selection or pre-qualification. 

You may choose to specify minimum environmental and social requirements, such as:

  • how a product is produced or manufactured or how a service is delivered, eg it is organic, uses an environmentally friendly process, uses a local supplier for a catering service, or products aren't transported long distances
  • a physical characteristic of a product or service, eg it contains a minimum recycled content, does not use hazardous materials like lead or mercury, is reusable not disposable, or only uses reusable or recyclable packaging
  • a minimum level of performance, eg it meets a required standard for energy or water efficiency, meets a certified standard like ISO 14001 or SA 8000, or the product must last for a minimum length of time.

You may be able to buy a product or service with an environmental label or ecolabel which meets your minimum requirements. An environmental label shows that a product or service is produced with less impact on the environment. See the page in this guideline: Buying products and services with environmental labels.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has also developed minimum specifications for government buying standards for a range of products including IT equipment, white goods and paper.

Defra: Standards for sustainable procurement

Manage contracts and suppliers

When evaluating tenders and awarding a contract, check that a supplier meets your environmental or social requirements. Monitor and review your contracts and suppliers to check they deliver the environmental and social performance you require.

You could include your sustainable procurement process in your environmental management system (EMS) if you have one. For more information about EMS, see our guideline: Environmental management systems (EMS) and environmental reports

If you don't have a formal EMS you could develop a sustainable purchasing policy that is supported by senior managers in your business.

Tell your suppliers and staff about your sustainable procurement objectives and processes and encourage them to buy or deliver products and services that improve your environmental and social purchasing.

Ask your supplier how you could meet your needs more sustainably, and work with them to develop innovative solutions.

Tools and guidance on sustainable procurement

There are several toolkits and guidance you can use to help introduce sustainable procurement in your business. See the page in this guideline on Buying sustainable goods and services further information

An environmental label shows that a product or service is produced with less impact on the environment. Environmental or green labels can help you make informed choices about the products or services you buy.

Not all labelling schemes set the same standards or use an independent process to verify their standards are met. For example, a product or service with an ecolabel - a type of environmental label - must meet certain environmental standards.

Some labels only focus on one environmental aspect, for example the Energy Star labelling scheme for energy efficiency. Others, like ecolabels, consider the life cycle impacts of a product or service, including the materials and resources used, and the waste created to make, use and dispose of it.

Check environmental standards

You should check what a label covers before purchasing your product or service, for example the focus of the label could be:

  • protecting natural resources or habitats
  • minimising energy consumption during manufacture or use
  • a product's agricultural impact
  • a product or service's ethical impact.

Environmental labels can cover a range of products, services or issues including:

  • recycling and packaging, eg mobius loop or packaging recycling logo on plastic materials
  • energy savings, eg European energy label, energy saving recommended
  • vehicles, eg UK fuel economy label
  • product-specific aspects, eg low volatile organic compounds labels on paint
  • food, eg Marine Stewardship Council, red tractor, Fairtrade, Euro-leaf
  • organic standards, eg Soil Association Scotland or Scottish Organic Producers Association
  • timber products, eg Forest Stewardship Council, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes
  • consumer products, eg Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, European Union (EU) Ecolabel.

To help you identify if a label is acceptable you should check the:

  • standard environmental criteria, eg criteria based on life cycle environmental assessment will look at multiple environmental issues and help you identify products and services that will be less harmful to the environment.
  • certification and audit methods, eg an independent and regular process for monitoring compliance against the standard criteria
  • origins of the label, eg government schemes may provide you with greater confidence.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) describes three types of system for environmental labelling. Unlike some other green labels or claim statements, only ISO Type I labels, eg the EU Ecolabel, certify that a product or service meets a strict environmental standard based on life cycle assessment. The standard is set and monitored by an independent process.

Identify products or services with environmental labels

You should check the claims made by an environmental label before you buy a product or service.

Buy products or services which use a label with appropriate environmental standards and which is awarded by an independent body, for example from an ISO Type I labelling scheme.

Global Ecolabelling Network: ISO Type 1 labels

EUROPA: EU Ecolabels on products

First, assess what types of items and services your business buys and choose which groups to focus on to reduce their environmental and social impact. Key groups could include:

  • energy
  • IT equipment
  • vehicles
  • financial products
  • construction products and materials.

The following top tips could help you make your buying more sustainable.

Buy green energy

Reduce your energy use and use energy more efficiently. This is the best way to reduce your carbon emissions. See our guideline: Energy efficiency

You can consider installing a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system when renewing boilers.

You can use or generate energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power, instead of fossil fuels.

Generate your own renewable energy.

Buy sustainable IT equipment

Choose energy-efficient IT equipment such as desktop PCs, laptops, monitors, printers and photocopiers to reduce your energy use and save you money.

Consider energy use throughout the life cycle of electrical equipment. Use environmental label criteria like the Energy Star labelling scheme for energy efficiency or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) government buying standards to help you set minimum environmental standards and buy the best performing equipment.

Reduce your consumption, eg buy less and make what you buy last longer by reusing or redistributing within your business. 

Deal with old equipment correctly. Your supplier is usually required to take back waste electrical and electronic equipment free of charge.

WEEE Regulations

Use technology that uses fewer resources, eg centrally managed computer systems such as thin client systems. These use less energy and should last twice as long as a normal desktop PC.

Buy green company vehicles

Buy a greener vehicle or use public transport if possible to reduce carbon emissions and help tackle climate change. Choose models and engines with low CO2 emissions and high fuel efficiency. Car travel creates more CO2 emissions than any other form of transport in the UK.

Vehicle emissions

Buy ethical financial products

Invest in green and ethically sound financial products. Socially responsible investment can have a positive impact on the environment and society and build your business reputation.

Ask your financial adviser about green or ethical investment options, eg investment funds, pension schemes and savings accounts.

Make investments that fit with your own sustainability aims, eg reducing carbon emissions, improving wages and working conditions through your supply chain.

Consider using ethical screening to:

  • avoid investing in companies that do not meet minimum environmental and ethical standards
  • identify companies with a commitment to responsible business practices, services and products.

UK Social Investment Forum: Ethical investments

Buy green construction products and materials

Use green construction materials and components to improve the environmental impact of your premises. You can use green specifications during design, construction or refurbishment.

Set minimum requirements for the environmental performance of your key building materials across their life cycle.

WRAP Northern Ireland: Supporting the construction sector

Resource Efficient Scotland: Sustainable Procurement

Buy products with ecolabels or environmental labels, for example Forest Stewardship Council certified timber products - see the page in this guideline:  Buying products and services with environmental labels.

Use reclaimed materials, for example bricks and tiles, solvent-free alternatives for glues and sealants, and locally produced materials, where possible.

Build or renovate to a sustainable building standard such as the Building and Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM).

BREEAM: Sustainable construction

Using a supplier who can meet your standards for environmental and social issues can help you reduce your impacts through your supply chain.

You may decide to reward a supplier who can exceed your requirements and provide a more sustainable product or service.

You can evaluate the environmental and social performance of a supplier before you award a contract to them for goods and/or services. This is called pre-qualification.

You may choose to use a pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) to check that a supplier can meet your standards for environmental and social issues. You may want to consider:

  • environmental management practices, eg ask if the supplier uses a certified environmental management system (EMS) such as ISO 14001 to assess their own environmental impacts, monitor their environmental impact and performance, maintain legal compliance and gain senior management commitment
  • compliance with environmental legislation, eg check your supplier has not been prosecuted for breaking the law
  • a product's environmental impact, eg ask about its resource use, whether waste is created during its manufacture, whether it uses hazardous substances, how much packaging it uses
  • delivery of your own specific environmental or social aims, eg to reduce the carbon footprint throughout your supply chain, becoming a signatory of the Ethical Trading Initiative base code
  • the supplier's buying practices - this can be useful in identifying environmental and social risks further down your supply chain
  • social responsibility policy and practices, eg whether the supplier identifies and assesses their own social risks and those of their supply chain and whether the supplier monitors compliance with International Labour Organisation standards in their supply chains.

Improve supplier performance

You can work with your suppliers to help them develop and improve their own environmental and social performance.

For example, you could:

  • audit key suppliers, providing guidance and advice to encourage improvements, eg developing an EMS
  • hold supplier training or improvement workshops, eg this could be related to a particular environmental impact such as reducing carbon emissions in your supply chain
  • work with a supplier to develop an improved product or service
  • identify and use local suppliers
  • set supplier targets or key performance indicators to measure continual improvement of your suppliers and contractors.

You could look at sustainability considerations in your supply chain more formally.

There are several organisations that provide guidance and toolkits you can use to help introduce sustainable procurement in your business. They can help you to work out your priorities, assess environmental and social impacts and identify how to reduce your impact.

WRAP Northern Ireland (Waste & Resources Action Programme) is a government organisation that aims to reduce waste and resource use across supply chains.

WRAP NI: Sustainable Procurement

Recycled Products Guide: Find a product

Zero Waste Scotland is a government organisation that aims to reduce waste and resource use across supply chains.

Resource Efficient Scotland: Sustainable Procurement

Recycled Products Guide: Find a product

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the government department responsible for environmental policy, including encouraging sustainable procurement.

Defra: Standards for sustainable procurement

Other information for businesses

For other sources of information, you can access the following websites:

British Standards Institution (BSI): BS 8903 Sustainable Procurement

BSI: Sustainability and environmental management standards

The Portal for Responsible Supply Chain Management

Public sector procurement tools and guidance

Guidance and toolkits designed for public sector organisations may also help you to consider social and environmental factors in your purchasing decisions.

Forum for the Future: Sustainable Procurement

European Commission: Green Public Procurement

European Commission: Buying Green! Handbook

Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges: Sustainable Procurement

Northern Ireland DFP: Sustainable purchasing for the public sector

Sustainable Scotland Network: Sustainable Procurement

Primary processes, eg natural resources or raw materials

What raw materials are used, eg are they renewable?

Could the extraction or processing of the materials cause air, land or water pollution?

Could extraction or processing produce waste?

Secondary processes, eg manufacture

What resources are used during manufacture, eg energy and water?

Could the manufacturing process cause air, land or water pollution?

Does the process meet relevant legal requirements?

Will the process or product meet the requirements of an environmental standard or ecolabel?

Are hazardous materials used?

How much packaging is used?

Does the process produce waste?

Does the manufacturer have good working conditions and pay a fair wage?

Tertiary processes, eg distribution

Where will your products or services come from, eg what distance will they have to travel?

How will a product get to you, eg air, rail or road?

How will goods be stored, eg will they need cold stores?

Use

What resources will be used during use and maintenance, eg energy, water, hazardous materials?

Will the product need to be handled carefully, eg could it cause air, land or water pollution?

Does the product have a limited shelf life, eg could it go out of date and need to be disposed of before you use it?

How easy will it be to get the product repaired if all or part of it stops working?

Will staff need training to use the product or service efficiently?

Will using it produce waste?

Will equality or diversity issues affect service delivery, eg does the service meet the needs of different users and those with different cultural backgrounds?

Could staff providing a service be exploited, eg low pay, antisocial hours?

End of life

How will you dispose of it?

Do you have to follow any legal requirements to use, store or dispose of it?

How long will it last?

Can it be reused, remanufactured or recycled?

Will it produce hazardous waste?

 

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