40.4 Aiming high with low carbon: Lessons to be learned from environmental friendliness in procurement and use

Satu Reijonen , Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Aiming high with low carbon: Lessons to be learned from environmental friendliness in procurement and use

Satu Reijonen (sr.ioa@cbs.dk), Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

In the recent years, much focus has been on the CO2 emissions resulting from consumption. Carbon emissions related to products and services such as fuels, food and transportation as well as the use of different technologies have increasingly been addressed by the media, governments, suppliers and private citizens. Different tools for assessment and comparison of products and services, such as carbon labels and carbon offsets, have been developed. Nevertheless, climate friendly consumption is yet to rise from the margin to mainstream.

This paper contributes to the development of low carbon markets by discussing the consumption of low carbon products in the light of research results from a related area, environmentally friendly procurement and consumption. Based on a case study on the role of environmental friendliness, the paper pin points two different market dynamics and discusses the implications thereof for understanding of low carbon markets.

The case study presented in this paper is based on semi-structured interviews with procurers, professional users and end users of urinary drainage bags in Denmark. Drawing on material constructivism (Latour 1993, 1999, Callon 1998, Law and Hassard 1999, Law and Mol 2002) and studies on work practices (Star 1999, Suchman et al. 1999, Orr 1998), I analyze the role of environmental friendliness in different interrelated procurement and use situations. Special attention is paid on identification of those concerns, routines, technologies and priorities that influence the form and significance of environmental friendliness in consumption and purchasing of drainage bags. Thus, the focus of this study is predominantly on market constitutive practices on the consumption side.

The case study results imply two major dynamics in the ways environmental friendliness is related to procurement and use: discontinuation/variation and subordination. Following from the dynamic of discontinuation/variation, environmental friendliness appears to be a fragile quality. While procurement and use of urinary drainage bags happens as a result of many interlinked events and activities, such as budgeting, marketing, logistics, recommendation, needs appraisals, procurement and application, these are not necessarily based on the same premises. Also participants to these events change. Amidst these shifts in settings and participants also environmental friendliness as a product quality appears and disappears. Furthermore, environmental friendliness is enacted in different versions, for example as PVC-freeness or waste reduction, in different locations and practices – and in some situations not at all.

In terms of the dynamic of subordination, environmental friendliness appears as a secondary quality that is often delegated to aside as other qualities become more significant for choosing the product even in those practices and by those market actors who do pay attention to the natural environment. Thus, environmental friendliness is not the only or the most important quality when choosing a product. It is subordinated to other product qualities, mainly price and functionality. When environmental friendliness comes to play a significant role this happens under the condition of a price limit or when the product is bought for a specific subcategory of users. In addition, environmental friendliness is sometimes taken into account as bringing added value to an otherwise well perceived product.

How can these two dynamics help us better interfere in the development of low carbon markets? When attempting to make carbon efficiency a significant product quality, it is necessary to consider three suggestions that stem from the analysis of the case study. First, to address the end consumer is not necessarily enough when attempting to change consumption patterns to a less carbon intensive direction. Rather, one needs to acknowledge the complexity of purchasing processes which often consist of chains of related events and actors many of which might be relevant for the role that carbon efficiency acquires in the end. Second, the producer might attempt to establish carbon efficiency of the product as a product quality that attracts the coming buyer. This, however, is not in her hands – carbon efficiency might become a non-quality in the next possible occasion. Given the complexity of the process leading to a procurement decision, it might be beneficial to identify those actors and events that greatly influence and restrict other actors’ decisions within the process. If, for example, a procurement officer in an organization only accepts low carbon products, the successive choice of products for those using them will be restricted by this decision. Third, the case of urinary drainage bags underlines that procurement is seldom based on comparison of products in terms of one product quality alone. Furthermore, environmental friendliness is usually not privileged over product qualities such as price and functionality. Therefore, the producers of low carbon products need to ensure that their products can be made competitive in regard to many different qualities, not only their carbon intensity.