Focus on function, not material

Hazardous substances should be included in the decision-making process when municipal organisations, such as kindergartens, school, hospitals etc., define what kind of products or services they want to buy. During the first step of the procurement process when specifications are written, we have the biggest influence on the potential to reduce hazardous substances in products and services.

“Focus on function, not material” ‒ if everyone involved in the procurement process followed this simple statement, we would be one important step closer to a municipality free of hazardous substances. Successful procurement presumes good knowledge about what is actually needed.  There is really a difference if a procurement process is defined in terms of material: “we need plastic chairs” versus in terms of function: “we need chairs that that are easy to keep clean”. Focusing on the latter criteria can provide procurement officers with greater flexibility to ensure that chairs do not contain hazardous substances, substances in lists of high concern or priority substances identified in municipal chemical action plans.

Such a shift in thinking is needed if we are to ensure a safe and healthy environment in kindergartens and other municipal workplaces. We want less hazardous substances, and we want to ensure that procurement specialists can source products where concentrations of hazardous substances are minimized or eliminated.

A handbook on green public procurement (European Commission)

After we have specified procurement  needs in a smart way by focusing on function instead of material, there are a lot of ways to buy “green” which can limit hazardous substances:

  • use specific procurement criteria that define what substances to avoid, e.g.  substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or endocrine disrupters;
  • request that products have eco-labels or are in line with eco-label requirements.

A focus on function also makes it easier to include other sustainability criteria in the procurement process, such as minimizing the carbon footprint, forest conservation, labour rights and gender equity.

Focusing on function instead of material is a small change in thinking that can have large benefits as it will make it easier for procurement officers and everyone involved in the purchasing chain to contribute to a workplace free of hazardous substances.