Can Developing Asia Make The Switch?

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In the restrooms of the Plaza Athénée in Bangkok, Thailand, where the UNEP Switch-Asia Conference on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) took place in November 2012, I noticed I had two choices when it came to drying my hands: paper or cloth. I’ve often alternated between the two but at this time and place, it got me thinking – which one is the more resource heavy option? The paper towel is a single-use commodity, while the cloth towel can be reused after washing it. This experience raised the question of what if the hotel could just buy a product that promises to be good for the environment, whilst delivering the same function – a win-win situation, right?

That’s where the Green Public Procurement (GPP) plan comes into play. It is a SCP strategy that aims to utilize greener alternatives with regards to goods and services ranging from air conditioning systems and light bulbs to toilet paper and hospitality services. GPP also aims to create market incentives such as tax rebates and subsidies for companies to develop and adopt greener, more resource efficient technologies. Moreover, a government can grant tenders and awards to suppliers to ensure the eco-labeling of their products. An example of this is a 2009 pilot scheme in Zürich, Switzerland, where the police force purchased some 4000 environmentally-friendly shirts through a public tender. Certain conditions had to be met in order to be awarded the tender, such as only using 100% organic cotton in the production of the shirts as well as observing the Eco-Tex Standard 100 Class II set of criteria. By substituting organic for non-organic cotton, lower amounts of pesticides and mineral fertilisers ended being used. The success of the Zurich pilot means that more agencies are expected to follow suit. 

Although green purchasing isn’t exactly a new idea, GPP implementation has gained more precedence in today’s political atmosphere due to an increased awareness of resource depletion and the need for sustainable development. Member States of the European Union (EU) were among the first to actively pave the way for GPP practices. The February 2012 EU27 report on GPP shows that there was still a significant increase in the implementation of GPP, despite not meeting the 50% target for sustainable procurement – an objective set by the EU to ensure that all member countries switch to greener products in accordance with the 19 common EU GPP criteria. The failure isn’t due to a lack of interest; rather, it is mainly because there isn’t always a straightforward process to include all of the criteria that cover items such as office IT equipment, transport, and mobile phones under the public procurement plan. For one thing, there are two types of criteria to measure by: “core criteria”, which is intended for suppliers to specify the major environmental impacts of the products and “comprehensive criteria” which is designed for the procurers to acquire the best available products in the market.

Needless to say, a government can only focus on a few high-priority areas as it would be prohibitively costly to fulfil all 19 common criteria. Additionally, the GPP policy doesn’t necessarily adopt the life cycle costing (LCC) approach which involves assessing the life cycle of a particular product from cradle to grave. A product bought under LCC principles would mean a more sustainable outcome. But here’s the deal-breaker: it would involve paying more (and as I mentioned, there’s not even enough to cover all 19 criteria) upfront. Besides the financial constraints in incorporating LCC into GPP, there is also a lack of understanding as well as technical capacity. Not only do procurers have to consider the entire cost of production in terms of the energy consumption and resources used, but much of today’s technology – like the microwave oven and washing machine – are not designed to be fully recycled when disposed of. These challenges are outlined thoroughly in this paper by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). LCC is value for money; perhaps the route forward then is for companies to first carry out LCC on some products, especially those that would create comparatively more environmental impact than others.

Life Cycle Cost Analysis. Source: EBS Consulants

In Asia, Japan, China, and South Korea are leading the GPP charge with varying results. To overcome the aforementioned challenges of high cost and a lack of comprehensive knowledge about eco-labelling among stakeholders, especially policy makers, some sort of approach that allows integration of some universal standards while leaving room for improvisation as per a country’s capacity is needed. Developing Asian countries like Thailand, for example, came up with their five-year National GPP Plan back in January 2008. It aims to realise 100% green labeling in all government sectors, local authorities, and even educational institutions. The end-result would see Thailand becoming more aware of SCP issues amid a rapidly growing economy.

According to Dr Araya Nuntapotidech from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Thailand, the GPP concept is still an ongoing process. She added that governments are in a position to take the lead and slowly disseminate the idea to the private sector. Indeed, many GPP policies have outlined that the public sector makes up the largest procurers of goods and services, and so are expected to stimulate the production and innovation of green technology. When asked about the allocation of the budget for this ambitious plan, Dr Araya replied that the government of Thailand is ready to consider GPP as a national priority in accordance to the United Nations 10-Year of Framework of Programme on SCP. Admirable yes, but those sound like lofty goals considering Thailand’s rise as one of the top 10 consumers in Asia, not to mention the population that is increasingly emulating the high consumption rates of the West. This isn’t the only obstacle unique to developing Asia when it comes to GPP. When it comes to Malaysia, their issues include an absence of a national eco-labeling scheme, a need for capacity-building in green purchasing, and a lack of integration between government and private sectors. It goes without saying that unless developing Asia first addresses these issues with their governance, it will take a while before they can be on par with their European counterparts.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to GPP is the lack of political support and insight because much of its success depends on strong financial backing. Dr Araya has stated that regional partnerships are imperative for the success of GPP as well to counteract any impending difficulties such as improper procurement due to an absence of a proper database and understanding for green purchasing. Developing countries like Thailand will have some ways to go before they can achieve a 100% success rate with GPP in five years but having the plan installed is better than nothing. In the meanwhile, maybe it’s ok to do without the paper towel and the hand towel every now and then.

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