Sustainable procurement enables an organisation to meet its needs for goods, services, works and utilities in a way that achieves value for money on a whole-of-life basis. Sustainable procurement delivers benefits to the organisation, society, and the economy, and minimises damage to the environment.

In the transition to a greener future, some industries hold more power to drive change than others. One of them is the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector.

A pathway to achieving sustainability in the AEC industry is to design and implement sustainable procurement policies, processes and practices. This approach can help create a circular economy in which products and materials are used for longer, and waste is avoided or reduced.

Sustainable procurement harnesses purchasing power of clients to deliver environmental benefits, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions during construction.  

Inquiry into the role of stakeholders in driving change 

Effectively implementing sustainable procurement relies heavily on stakeholders’ attitudes, motivations and preferences. It’s stakeholders who hold the key to transforming AEC industry procurement practices.

Australia’s Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre (SBEnrc)’s Sustainable Procurement project, which is a collaborative research initiative between industry, government and researchers has learned an unambiguous lesson: Australian stakeholders are not yet ready to embrace sustainable procurement.

There are known, and as yet unknown, barriers to adopting such practices throughout the supply chain.

For example, we have found that sustainability is thought of as expensive, and as something that must be paid for. A mindset that may restrict the transformation of industry practices.

One of our study participants, from the government sector, pointed out that, “even if their backs are against the wall in terms of value for money, they still struggle with the concept of paying more for sustainability. This terrific thing, maybe it’ll take decades to work its way through.”

Driving changes in industry practices that lead to adopting sustainable procurement 

After listening to stakeholders’ perceptions, we identified four major dimensions of industry practice that must change if our goal is to enable sustainable procurement, depicted below.

Figure 1. The model of stakeholders’ role in transforming sustainable procurement practices

1) Behavioural change

Behavioural change requires a holistic approach — plus time. Our research shows behavioural change is best accomplished through applying a proactive approach, exerting influence through purchasing power, reporting performance, and enacting strategies that change behaviour. 

Organisational and industry culture also plays a role in changing behaviours. For example, a government client might be unwilling to pay a premium for sustainability. Yet if sustainability is framed as better risk management, they’ll be more willing to pay.

An AEC industry client reported, “we have our governance, we have our individual performance targets, particularly in their management … to drive sustainability and sustainable procurement practices within the organisation.”

2) Cultural change

Just like changing behaviours, changing culture takes time. To positively influence cultural change in sustainable procurement, we need to define value for money, engage stakeholders early, foster communication and collaboration, and enable innovation. 

Driving cultural change entails actions that can be assigned to four categories: enabling, encouraging, engaging and enforcing.

Figure 2. Some strategies for achieving behavioural change, adapted from HM Government (2005)

3) Change in process 

As well as a change in behaviour and culture, any transformation in industry practice also depends on a change in process, tools and policy.

Our research identified four strategies that lead to change in process: employing tools and process, defining goals and requirements, managing performance and practices, and rewarding and providing resources.

One of our interviewees suggested that “the government can work with industry bodies to understand the market practices and raise awareness. The government can even help facilitate the certification process to get the local market ready for tendering opportunities.”

4) The impact of context 

The role of context in shifting industry practices is more indirect, but potentially very powerful. Legislation is important in establishing context. It can stipulate and enforce minimum sustainability requirements, and influence the “laggards” – those who are late to the sustainability party.

Legislation can also give government the authority to introduce measures and set particular goals and targets. Sometimes, if it knows legislation is coming, industry might come to the party early rather than later. 

Consumers are also major players — they are the market and they drive private sector behaviour. The private sector is very aware of consumers’ impact and influence on sustainability practices. “If there’s a market for sustainable products and sustainable marketing then they will follow,” a contractor participant argued.

Similarly, the public sector is influenced by views that hold sway in the public domain. Community pressure (such as organised protests) may drive behavioural and practice changes in government. 

Stakeholders need to understand the roles of consumers, and the public generally, so they can allocate resources in ways that shift the AEC industry towards more sustainable procurement practices. For example, industry bodies may choose to indirectly influence behaviours and practices in the supply chain. To achieve this, they may try to raise public awareness about sustainable procurement requirements and benefits.

The way forward

Our takeaway message is that when planning for sustainable procurement, stakeholders’ interest and influence should be closely examined. Government, clients, suppliers/contractors, non-government organisations, consumers and the community play different roles in the sustainability journey.

Taking stakeholders seriously is signalled by the client taking the first step to identify its sustainability requirements and preferences. When the client establishes foundations for sustainable procurement, those in the AEC industry interested in this party can help build a sustainable future. 

This research has been developed with support provided by Australia’s Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre (SBEnrc). SBEnrc develops projects informed by industry partner needs, secures national funding, project manages the collaborative research and oversees research into practice initiatives.

Core Members of SBEnrc include BGC Australia, Government of Western Australia, Queensland Government, Curtin University, Griffith University and RMIT University. This research would not have been possible without the valuable support of our core industry, government and research partners.

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