This week we’ve published our latest research, on how well the UK government is performing against its sustainable procurement policy for timber products. You can read the Buying Right? report here.
Public procurement is perhaps not an obvious topic for an environmental organisation. It is certainly less photogenic than some of the work we do! But it’s important because government buying can have a huge influence on the demand for sustainably produced goods – and so the incentives for sustainability in supply chains. Previous estimates have suggested that purchasing goods and services accounts for about one-third of all public sector spending: that’s hundreds of billions of pounds in buying power every year. It is widely recognised that this government buying power can support the shift to a sustainable future – so much so that it was included in Sustainable Development Goal 12, which aims to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
The UK government has a good track record in recognising the importance of sustainable public procurement for protecting forests. The first guidance to ensure that timber products used by the public sector are legal and sustainable is over 20 years old. The Timber Procurement Policy (TPP) was then made mandatory in 2000. The challenge however remains implementation: a good policy won’t have any effect if it isn’t implemented. Our research looks at to what extent the UK government is implementing its own policy, revealing a mixed picture.
While most government departments are broadly complying with the TPP, changes to reporting mean that many will now stop checking that they are buying sustainable timber. Without central government departments specifically asking for sustainable timber, and checking that is what they receive, we won’t create the demand for sustainability which is critical to helping protect the world’s forests. That’s an alarming prospect at a time when global deforestation keeps rising, and forests represent one of the greatest hopes to help avoid dangerous levels of climate change.
At the moment, many UK policies are in flux, as we make plans to leave the EU and reshape our relationship with the world. Public procurement is one of the wide range of issues that could be impacted by legal changes, creating uncertainty, but also the opportunity to ensure UK policy works better for people and the environment. We want to see the UK government working together with the wider public sector, to ensure that their collective buying power keeps moving us toward achieving the SDGs, and away from unsustainable trade that damages people and nature.
At the same time, public procurement is simply one part of the puzzle. The TPP is one way that the UK has been a global leader in the fight to tackle illegal logging and recognise the role of trade in helping countries improve forest governance. Alongside this the UK government has also invested in supporting forest countries to cut out illegal timber and stopping the sale of it on the EU market – initiatives we should be proud of.
As the UK redefines its policies and trade relationships it’s critical that this coherent approach to promoting sustainable trade in timber continues. Government demand for timber and paper can’t come at the expense of forest people, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Trade deals can’t come at the expense of forests. While navigating change, buying right must remain a constant. The world’s forests are counting on it.