Interview: Sustainable Public Procurement

Dear readers, in this month’s edition we bring one of the world’s greatest experts in public procurement for a special interview. Professor Roberto Caranta, from the University of Turin, brings us an accurate analysis from the conceptual basis to the challenges of sustainable procurement for the coming years. In the end, he suggests a valuable curation with reading recommendations to delve deeper into the topic. The questions were prepared by our dear Ementário partner, Felippe Vilaça (researcher at the University of Gävle).

Felippe Vilaça – Governments, businesses, and civil society actors are joining efforts to promote sustainable development. The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 has been guiding some of these efforts, aiming at fostering sustainability-linked initiatives.  What is your understanding of sustainability?

Roberto Caranta – Sustainability means that economic development must not overuse resources and overstep the planet’s boundaries. Sustainability means that economic development must include everyone and for sure not be built on the infringement of human and workers’ rights. Sustainability is about the future of my kids.

FV – The Agenda 2030 includes several goals and targets, which have been used as an action plan and monitoring framework for building sustainability initiatives. Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production entails Target 12.7, which is related to promoting public procurement practices that are sustainable. What does the inclusion of sustainability issues in public procurement mean to you?

RC – Public procurement is a huge public money to acquire works, goods and services. States own a duty to ensure the future of their communities to live in a healthy environment and just societies. Public procurement has a huge leverage that can be used to achieve wider societal goals, including the fight against climate change and the defeat of poverty and exploitation.

FV – International organisations (e.g. the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP) and other stakeholders (e.g. non-governmental organisations) are developing guidelines and tools aimed at providing knowledge on how to implement sustainable public procurement. There is an assumption that sustainable public procurement requires a different implementation approach when compared to “traditional” public procurement. What are the main differences between “traditional” public procurement and sustainable public procurement (SPP)?

RC – I would not call it ‘traditional’ public procurement. Historically, public procurement has always been used to achieve wider societal goals as one of the tools States have to shape their societies. The US New Deal was just a very prominent example of this reality. In the ’80s, due to the fiscal crisis of the State and the prevalence of neo-liberal theories, the focus of procurement was narrowed to a mechanical appraisal of the lowest economic costs or higher economic return for public money. This pushed producers and sellers to externalise environmental and social costs to society at large to bring their costs down. Compared to neo-liberal procurement, SPP is a return to the basics of public procurement as a tool for pursuing wider policies pursuing social – and this was of course not so relevant more than 50 years ago – environmental goals away from lowest costs and a narrow focus on narrow economic value. As in the end it is the State that needs to make up for environmental and social costs, saving on procurement is shortsighted.

FV – Governments have been reforming their legal systems to foster the implementation of sustainable public procurement. There are examples of legal frameworks promoting the inclusion of sustainability issues in tenders (e.g. the European countries following the European Union directives) and including sustainability as a mandatory procurement requirement (e.g. the Brazilian experience on sustainable public food procurement). How does the legal system influence the implementation of sustainable public procurement?

RC – Unlike commercial procurement, public procurement is more or less heavily regulated by law depending on the different traditions in different legal systems. This means that to change the approach, changes in the legal framework are necessary. They are however not sufficient, as procurers as markets need to evolve to meet different demands from procurement and procurement officials need to be motivated and trained.

FV – Research on public procurement has been focusing on several topics, including competition, corruption, e-procurement, innovation, and sustainability. However, there seems to be a shady area between some topics in public procurement law and practice, such as innovation and sustainability.  What is the relationship between innovation and sustainability in public procurement?

RC – I would not talk of ‘shady’ areas, but rather of very significant synergies. The fight against climate change and respect for our planet’s boundaries requires changing our production and consumption patterns shifting from a linear to a circular economy. This requires a lot of innovation, for instance using drone to buy deforestation products or blockchain technologies to better control supply chains and make sure workers’ rights are respected.

FV – There is growing attention from international organisations and researchers to understanding what forces have been contributing to the implementation of sustainability into public procurement.  What has been driving the implementation of sustainable public procurement?

RC – We are overstepping our planet’s boundaries and putting at risk the future of our children. Public procurement is a relevant tool we can enlist in our pursuit of most important societal goals. Market participants are ready to innovate and change to continue selling, but market alone will not save our future and therefore a change in the mind of policymakers away from a narrow focus on saving to pursue wider societal goals is happening.

FV – The implementation of sustainable public procurement can be challenging – for example, requiring institutional capacity and organisational changes. Research has been contributing to understanding successful experiences in this context, highlighting the complexity of some sustainable public procurement initiatives and exploring hindering factors regarding contract laws, policy frameworks, and procurement practices. What are the main challenges to implementing sustainable public procurement?

RC – Green- and social-washing must be avoided and to this end, sustainability benefits need to be measurable or at least certain. This means developing complex tools such as life cycle costing -LCO. Procurement officials need to be motivated and trained to use these instruments.

FV – The challenges of implementing sustainable public procurement have been tackled by several strategies, including collaboration between stakeholders. According to research, one of the stakeholders that could contribute to sustainable public procurement initiatives is the academia.  What is the role of academia in promoting sustainable public procurement and what is the SAPIENS Network?

RC – Any change in society needs thinking, from answering the philosophical question of why we do things to developing the economic, legal and technological tools to do things. SPP is of course no exception. Academia is the place of thinking, is one of the places where the future is thought and the tools for making the future real are developed. SAPIENS is a network of colleagues from 10 universities, 14 brilliant PhD candidates and close 20 non-academic partner organisations thinking about the future of public procurement and helping make SPP possible.

FV – The trending topics in public procurement research and practice may vary over time (e.g. centralisation vs. decentralisation; green procurement; socially responsible procurement). Some topics seem to be leading the public procurement agenda (e.g. innovation; circular procurement; sustainability) – while others remain underexplored (e.g. artificial intelligence; smart contracts). What should public procurement practitioners and researchers expect from the public procurement agenda in the next 10 years?

RC – I would not say AI and company are understudied now, but for sure technology has a role to play in public procurement. I think SPP is here to stay, because our societal challenges will not be gone in ten years and procurement will possibly have an even greater role to play. As I fear that the global order is unravelling and our half-a century of near peace can no longer be taken for granted, I think the role of public procurement in making State and macro-regions like the EU resilient will become central.

FV – Could you please share recommendations (e.g. books, papers, newsletters) for those interested in learning more about sustainable public procurement?

RC – Books and papers:

– MELON, Lena. Sustainability in Public Procurement, Corporate Law and Higher Education. New York: Routledge, 2024.

– KUMAR, Sanjay. Understanding Sustainable Public Procurement. Cham: Springer, 2022.

– SCHOONER, Steven L.. No Time to Waste: Embracing Sustainable Procurement to Mitigate the Accelerating Climate Crisis (December 8, 2021). Contract Management, Issue 12, page 24 (December 2021), GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-53, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2021-53.

– MARTIN-ORTEGA, Olga; LOZANO, Laura T. Sustainable Public Procurement of Infrastructure and Human Rights: Beyond Buying Green. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2023.

– JANSSEN, Willem; CARANTA, Roberto. Mandatory Sustainability Requirements in EU Public Procurement Law: Reflections on a Paradigm Shift. Oxford: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2023.

SAPIENS Network:

– Subscribe to our Newsletter:

– What is the SAPIENS Network? (YouTube)

– Attend the SAPIENS Network Conference on June 20th (hybrid event):

– Advanced Training Courses:

– Policy briefs:

– Research papers, books, and other publications:

– Sustainable Public Procurement Law Course:

– Working papers:

Roberto Caranta-Professor in Administrative Law at the University of Turin (Italy) working mainly on public procurement, with a focus on Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) and remedies, European Union (EU), and administrative comparative law with a focus on judicial protection. Coordinator of the Sustainability and Procurement in International, European, and National Systems – SAPIENS – International Training Network (SAPIENS-ITN – H2020 – MSCA ITN: Grant 956696 the first international training network and academic research project purposefully designed for the inherently interdisciplinary nature of SPP. With Steen Treumer he funded the European Procurement Law Group ( and edits the European Procurement Law Series, first DJØF, Copenhagen and now with Edward Elgar (K-M. Halonen is today the other co-editor). Professeur invité at the Universities of Marseille – Aix-en-Provence (2016) and Lyon 3 (2023). Co-director of the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies – CTLS London for the Academic year 2012/13 Vice President of the Procurement Review Board of the European Space Agency – ESA. He has drafted studies and conducted training for various UN and EU institutions. He has authored and edited many books and more than 200 works.

Felippe Vilaça Loureiro Santos-Ph.D. Scholar at the University of Gävle (Sweden), SAPIENS Network researcher, and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow. He holds a B.Sc. in Political Science from the University of Brasília (Brazil) and an M.B.A. in Public Management and an M.Sc. in Governance and Development from the National School of Public Administration (Brazil). He has been a Brazilian civil servant since 2005, working at the Ministry of Education, Regional Labour Court (10th Region), Federal Public Defender’s Office, and Brazilian Hospital Services Company. He was among the winners of the TED Ambassador Award (2023), promoted by the Publications Office of the European Union to identify high-quality research in public procurement. Co-editor of the book: Compras públicas centralizadas no Brasil: teoria, prática e perspectivas. Brasília: Editora Fórum, 2022. His research focuses on public procurement, public management, governance, organisations, and sustainability.