How Utrecht University is becoming more sustainable with every tender

While you would not think so under the current Covid-19 circumstances, Utrecht University is a lot like a small town. It is a place where some thirty thousand students and almost seven thousand staff are brought together for conversation, learning, work, walking and eating. In short, it is a place where people live.  

To support the hustle and bustle of Utrecht University life, goods and services – from coffee, flowers and furniture to waste disposal, cleaning and construction work – are needed. These goods and services don’t materialise out of thin air; they are purchased by the university through tenders. Combined altogether, these tenders are worth hundreds of millions of euros. That is why they can be an important tool. According to Evelyn Maurer, contract and supplier's manager at the Facilities Service Centre of the UU, “If you want to make your business operations more sustainable, tenders are a very important starting point".

Stepping it up

It doesn’t take long for Maurer to come up with an example. A few years ago, supplier MAAS replaced the disposable still water bottles that used to be up for sale in the UU’s vending machines. You can now buy reusable bottles containing tap water instead. If MAAS did this, it wasn’t because they desperately wanted to stop the sale of bottled water, as this was what the supplier earned the most from. Instead, this was a condition that was negotiated and agreed upon at the start of the supplier’s new contract with the university. As a result, some 35,000 fewer plastic water bottles were sold compared to the previous year.

Another requirement of the UU was that this supplier should start using small, electric  trolleys (instead of petrol-powered cars) to resupply the vending machines. Anyone who walks down Heidelberglaan during the day may have seen them driving around. In this way, the tendering process accelerated the transition to electric vehicles, and the consequences of this may be felt beyond the UU. As Maurer brings up, “'This is an investment for the supplier, but when the next client comes along, the supplier can show what they are already doing in the field of sustainability”. MAAS works a lot with universities, and these kinds of trolleys are very suitable for use on any campus. In this way, the entire market is shifting further and further towards a more sustainable business operations model.

Portretfoto Evelyn Maurer
Evelyn Maurer - contract- and supplier's manager

A dilemma

For those who are not so familiar with the world of tenders, here is how they work in a few words. A tender is the procedure by which the client (namely the UU) publishes an assignment for contractors to bid on. In this way, universities comply with European legislation, where universities are obliged to invite companies to tender for the provision of goods and services. In addition to this, Maurer adds: “It is also pretty practical. If everyone at the university started ordering their own paperclips or coffee, it would quickly become chaotic. The campus would be inundated with delivery vans driving in and out”.

Additionally, the tendering process is also the perfect opportunity to consider sustainability, along with what you (the client) are expecting from the contractor in this regard. Naturally, sustainability is not the only factor which plays a role in this process. The university has to deal with the dilemma of meeting sustainability ambitions while also ensuring affordability and approval. “This is a dilemma which certainly exists” says Maurer. “Our motto is: evolution over revolution”. This idea behind this is that having a fully vegetarian menu in an almost empty restaurant doesn’t do anybody any favours. The steps that the university takes towards more sustainable operations may sometimes be small, but they are very clear. In support of this, Maurer cites the transition to vegetarian conference lunches. “It was a gradual but successful change: vegetarian is now the standard option for conference lunches”.

She adds: “It helps that sustainability is a much more dominant concept now than in the past. The fact that you are no longer in the running as a contractor if you don’t fulfil the sustainability requirements is really a new development from the last few years”.

If you want to make your business operations more sustainable, tenders are a very important starting point.

Portretfoto Evelyn Maurer
Contract- and supplier's manager at the Facility Service Centre

Development goals

At this point, tenders almost seem like a checklist of criteria that companies need to fulfil, but this is not quite the case according to Maurer. “Of course, there are some conditions that we ask for. If you are a contractor that is using a diesel truck from 1970, then it will likely be impossible for you to work for a large institution like the UU”. In most cases, Maurer and her colleagues’ choice of contractor in the tendering process is mostly driven by some so-called development goals, which can be linked to the Sustainable Development Goals. “We then ask, for example, for a description of how the supplier is going to work on responsible consumption and production”.

The contract that follows is seen by Maurer as a partnership where the established objectives, including sustainability objectives, can be worked on and achieved. Take the case of the tender for ‘circular furniture’ which is currently out. As Maurer enthusiastically describes, “Our ambition is to fully reuse the furniture of the UU”. The university would like a future partner that can think along with it about how its furniture can be reused again and again. Furniture that is temporarily not being used, or that is being refurbished, is to be placed in storage. The UU already has a warehouse for this. “It would be great if this model could further be expanded upon by our new partner”.

Figuring out how to make this new system work sounds like quite a tall order for the supplier. What would they get in return? Maurer explains that the university is aiming for a longer contract period of ten years; much longer than the usual four years. “This is the first time we would be applying such a system for furniture, so it is quite exciting. However, working on a more sustainable world requires investments from both sides, which is why a contract of a couple of years is not enough. Maurer believes that to work together on sustainability, you must dare to commit to long-term relationships. In this way, you have a chance to build something together. Sometimes, such cooperation comes about naturally and can be brought up to the next level. Other times, difficult discussions or feelings of dissatisfaction can get in the way. For Maurer, “The rule is always that you made a commitment, and you therefore have to find a solution together”. She grins, “Yes, in a way it is a lot like marriage”.

The series 'green stories' aims to give a view into the work by some of the researchers, students and employees that, in various ways, commit themselves to driving sustainable change; in the world and at Utrecht University. #groenverhaal

Would you like to know what else is going on at the UU with regards to sustainability? Take a look at the Sustainability Monitor.