Ethical public procurement an 'incredible force for good'
by Ed Butcher
With judges ruling that public authorities can put ethical sourcing at the heart of their procurement, the Fairtrade Foundation says that switching to fair trade is good for global security and prosperity
As if they had been waiting for the occasion, the European Court of Justice judges made sure this year's World Fairtrade Day on May 12 went with a bang. In a landmark ruling just days before, the court ended years of uncertainty as to whether public authorities were allowed to put ethical sourcing at their heart of the procurement strategies. The court made it absolutely clear that public authorities can proactively chose to buy Fairtrade and fairly traded goods.
Up to now, the lingering ambiguity had caused over a decade of provocation and unwittingly set back the cause of ethical public procurement. Public procurers' perceived risk of litigation from disgruntled, unsuccessful bidders had been a big turn-off for more conservative authorities. This fear had prevented them from including anything moderately exotic in their award criteria, including preferences for ethical production. Exiting this festering quagmire of legal uncertainty means public authorities can now be loud and proud about their preference for higher ethical production.
The reality is that trail-blazing public authorities have been quietly buying Fairtrade in spite of the lack of clarity in European Union procurement rules for public authorities. As we look to the future, all eyes now focus on Brussels. The irony of this ruling is that it comes as the current regulations reach the end of their shelf life. Eurocrats are busy cooking up the next version of the EU-wide public procurement directive. There is a general mood for simplification, but the first drafts look good on ethical procurement. It is very much hoped the legacy of this ruling will be retained to prevent another lost decade of unfocused and ineffective public buying.
Now we have the 'how' out of the way, the more fundamental question is why this matters. With public finances in such a mess, some might question why responses to a call for tender should be judged on anything other than purely economic criteria. National and local government is behind the curve and so having to play catch up on improving ethics in the production of the goods they buy. While bureaucrats and lawyers have been dillydallying, businesses in the United Kingdom have been grappling with making supply chains more sustainable. It is not quite 'while Rome burns', but a decade of feet-dragging on ethic procurement rules does not quite respond to the sustainability emergency around us.
Businesses do not always get it right, but they deserve government support – and in this context, their custom – when they do. It is absurd that government buyers' doors have been barely ajar to commercial propositions that are attempting to address some of the profoundest socio-economic problems of our age – in the case of Fairtrade, through promoting greater equality in food supply chains. The UK department for international development alone will not end global inequality, but mobilising the buying power of the world's fifth biggest public administration will make a more serious dent. Hope of ending intractable ethical and sustainability issues comes partly through ending the silo thinking that leads to one part of the public sector ignoring what another part is trying to achieve.
This is not about 'do-gooding', this is about global security and prosperity. It is about rebalancing power in our supply chains. This is as simple as making sure a farmer can make enough from the sugar he grows that eventually ends up in a civil servants' cup of tea. Simply put, a happy farmer is a peaceful one and economic security is a precursor to that happiness. And one day, when that farmer is rich enough, he may buy fertilizers or a tractor made in Britain. In our increasingly globalised economy, we cannot ignore the multipliers to government expenditure and public procurement rules must support and enable this incredible force for good.
Ed Butcher is a procurement specialist at the Fairtrade Foundation