What it is and what it isn’t.
ISO 20400 is the new international standard for sustainable procurement. It was published last month and is the result of four years of hard work by people representing more than 40 countries, as well as several influential global organisations including the United Nations Environment Programme, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Trade Union Confederation.
I had the honour of leading the UK delegation and played a key role in developing the standard with my colleague Cathy Berry. Publication has been accompanied with a lot of media froth, much of which is inaccurate and ill-informed, so let’s try to cut through some of the myths.
What it is
The standard provides guidance for any organisation of any size or type that needs to deliver sustainable outcomes through their supply chains. It is relevant to anybody in an organisation who contributes to procurement decisions and/or works with suppliers (including sub-contractors).
The standard is similar in structure to the standard it succeeds, BS 8903, in that it provides a strategic framework for an organisation to procure sustainably.
The section on fundamentals covers the core principles of sustainability and sustainable procurement, using the core subjects of ISO 26000. It emphasises the need for organisations to understand what drives them to procure sustainability and to set priorities in the context of their own. It brings in the concepts of complicity and due diligence from the UN Guiding Principles of Human Rights and Business and is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Policy and strategy sets out how to adopt the principles in fundamentals into the overall strategy of the organisation and, importantly, how to further adapt the policy to the procurement context.
Enablers (officially called 'organising the procurement function towards sustainability') covers the organisational conditions required to deliver sustainable procurement. This is very similar to BS 8903, covering issues such as governance, leadership, setting priorities at category and supplier level, developing people and supplier engagement.
Procurement process takes the reader step by step through a typical procurement process and provides some good advice on how procurement techniques can be used in different circumstances to deliver greater sustainability through the supply chain.
What it isn’t
There has been much activity in the past week following our successful UK launch event for the standard with speakers from BSI, IEMA, CIPS and Action Sustainability. I was delighted to announce that my team had carried out what we believe to be the world’s first full evaluation against the standard with Balfour Beatty. The media and stakeholder attention this has been given is great, but it has generated some misunderstandings.
Firstly, it is a guidance standard, not a requirements standard. I see headlines saying Balfour Beatty have been 'certified' against the standard despite the press release being very clear. This is simply not true. You cannot be certified against this standard so don’t believe anybody who tells you differently.
Working with a guidance standard means we are free to work with a client to understand how they have interpreted the guidance in the context of their business, established evidence to confirm they have done what they said they are doing and then to express our professional opinion through findings and recommendations.
It is a much more engaging and constructive process where the client builds their strategy over time and can be evaluated to gauge their progress at a time when they most need professional advice. Too many audits end up as a competition between the auditee’s ability to hide bad stuff and the auditor's ability to unearth what they have hidden. A guidance standard helps us to engage more openly and transparently.
Secondly, it is not product-related. I am continuously asked if it tells you what products to buy and what not to buy. No, it doesn’t but it does provide a strategic framework that will enable you to include more sustainable products in your procurement thinking. It also provides good advice on the various types of labels and guides and what to look for.
There is a huge difference between types of product standards, some very good, some not worthy of consideration. The guide helps you to evaluate them. At the launch event I was asked if it competes with SEDEX. I found this a ridiculous question. SEDEX is a database (other databases are available). It may be helpful to gather information about your suppliers but only if you have good policies, strategies and processes implemented by competent people. ISO 20400 provides guidance on all these things.
Societal expectations are at an all-time high. It is no longer acceptable to do a few sustainability things in your own organisation and ignore your supply chain. This standard can be a game changer if implemented the way it was designed to be used.