Jil Wenner: On the importance of versatility for research in ‘sustainability law’, and on focusing on the bidder instead of the bid in EU public procurement law

'Who' and 'what' are you? 

My name is Jil Wenner. Born and raised in Luxembourg, I grew up fluent in Luxembourgish, French, German and English. Mid-way through high school, I challenged myself by enrolling in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme to reap the benefits of an internationally oriented education. The IB’s core values of critical thinking and independent learning certainly prepared me well for the Dutch higher education system during my university studies later on.

I studied PPLE (Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics) at the University of Amsterdam in my Bachelor’s, a small-scale interdisciplinary programme in which I majored in law, while gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of our society’s most pressing challenges. This allowed me to comprehend the multi-layered functioning and implications of the law. My interests in environmental sustainability and justice also crystallised during this time, and found expression in a large variety of courses, culminating in my interdisciplinary Bachelor thesis on the EU’s political incentives and legal competence in implementing Digital Product Passports for Europe’s transition to a circular economy.

After a reflective year of different internships, I came to Utrecht University to study in the brand new Law and Sustainability LLM, during which I got accustomed to a variety of different domains within the broad field of ‘sustainability law’. I concluded this Master’s with my thesis on bridging the climate accountability gap through assessing the legal landscape in the EU for holding multinational corporations liable for greenhouse gas emissions in their value chains. It was also during the LLM that I engaged with the complex questions around the legal opportunities and barriers to sustainable public purchasing. This educational path fostered the reflective and multi-faceted thinking that I believe is required for pursuing sustainability through the law.

At this moment, the ‘what’ in terms of career orientation is not entirely clear to me yet, which can be a stressful thought in your 20s. But I trust that the future-oriented stance of my studies, as well as my ambition to do well in stimulating environments and my diligent work ethic will open the doors for a variety of professional endeavours.

What are you working on, and why? 

Together with Willem Janssen, I am currently working on a 6-month research project, sparked by the European expansion of Stichting Klimaatvriendelijk Aanbesteden en Ondernemen’s (‘Foundation for Climate Friendly Procurement and Business’ in English) CO2 Performance Ladder, a CO2 emissions management system and public procurement tool. Highlighting the limitations to sustainable public procurement with regards to corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and eco-labels like the CO2 Performance Ladder in current EU procurement law, our research analyses the focus on the bid under the current procurement rules and discusses a potential move towards giving increased importance to the bidder in procurement procedures instead, as a way of promoting environmentally and socially responsible public purchasing.

The research looks at the underpinnings of the current limitations to sustainable public purchasing in EU procurement law, the changed political and legal context in which EU public procurement law operates today, some of the main expressions of the limitations in considering the bidder in EU procurement legislation, and future pathways to afford a bigger role to the bidder in the EU procurement regime. The research hereby addresses a recalibration of the balance between the foundational internal market objectives and the increasingly pressing sustainability objectives pursued in EU public procurement law. Simply put, our research aims to contribute to more legal certainty and a smoother integration of environmental and social goals in public procurement in the EU.

The urgent sustainability transition requires an all-hands-on-board approach, requiring also integration within the public procurement realm. Public procurement hereby represents a promising avenue, given its immense power (and therefore responsibility) to significantly influence the market due to the huge expenditures it represents (annually, public procurement accounts for 14-19% of the EU-wide GDP).

Just like it motivated my studies, the pressing concern of sustainability greatly motivates my research in this project. The ability to develop among like-minded people in a stimulating environment equally drives me. Fascinated by the law’s potential to innovate in response to societal wants and needs, this research looks at one way in which the law can contribute to environmental and social transitions at the EU level. Ultimately, the aim of this research is to create and disseminate accessible knowledge on how we can better use public procurement to accelerate these transitions.

Our world seems to be in a continuous state of various crises (environment, COVID19, Ukraine, Israel–Hamas war): can you indicate for one (or possibly several) of these crises how this affects your research? 

It seems that tragic news just keep piling up at an increasing pace in recent years. This negativity can feel overwhelming and discouraging at times, when you reflect on your role to play in these issues. Among the current wars (which recall lasting wars in more removed parts of the world that are much less mediatised), the tendency towards right-wing politics in much of Europe, and the ceaseless manifestations of our climate crisis, it is important to actively seek out positive news every now and then.

A constant that truly affects all of us and to which we all contribute however remains climate change. I was listening to an environmental news report recently, and I particularly liked the journalist’s opening, saying that in a context as tragic as today’s, he had briefly hesitated to do the report, thinking for a moment that talking about the environment was out of place and that perhaps we should respect a moment of silence. His disagreement with the realisation that this would mean that the environment is a topic that cannot exist when tragic news hit us in the heart was an encouragement to focus all the more on contributing, to the extent possible, to change through our work. The confrontation with these crises through the news often transforms into a self-realisation for me of how important it is to me to pursue some kind of bigger purpose to find sense in what I do. This also motivates my current work, as the environmental crisis in particular makes my research on how we can better use public procurement to contribute to societal change all the more relevant.

Which person inspires you and what would you like to ask her/him?

I often find it difficult to choose just one when asked these kinds of questions (see question below), therefore I’m going back to my roots to say: my mum. The overload of information confronting us every day can sometimes exhaust me. What keeps me going in those moments is thinking about my mum’s mentality. While it’s not that external circumstances never affect her, she doesn’t let them get in her way, always getting her tasks done, always with care and on time, and never putting things off. While my mum has taught me a great deal with regards to perseverance in seeing things through to the end, putting dedication and care into what I do, and maybe most importantly honesty, I admire her for her consistency. She inspires me to just get stuff done, because the feeling of accomplishment and contribution to something are unmatched.

Name the book/movie/thinker that impressed you the most, shaped you, would you like to read or see 100 more times and why?

I would consider myself a cinephile. During my Master’s in Utrecht, I went to Springhaver, a small indie cinema close to where I lived, about once a week at one point. Close by Lukas Dhont and Aftersun by Charlotte Wells were definitely among the most beautiful but hardest films to watch, both touching on hidden (male) mental suffering.

Another movie I saw last year with my friends from the Master’s was Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes. The film tells the true story of Rob Billot, a once-corporate US lawyer who risked his career to switch sides and engage in a decades-long lawsuit against chemical company DuPont over its known, large-scale contamination of waters. The movie is a tribute to environmental justice and an inspiring take on the power of the law in advancing societal change. It inspired discussion among my friends that transcended into the classroom of the Master’s, prompting some of my research during the year. I recently came across Duty of Care – The Climate Trials, a documentary following Dutch lawyer Roger Cox as he makes legal history by initiating groundbreaking climate cases against governments and multinationals. After quite some digging however, I still haven’t found out where I can watch the English version of the movie

Sunsets are among the most beautiful natural phenomena to me because they require patience in watching nature gradually unveil its glory. This process often instils in me a sense of connection to my natural surroundings, emphasising nature’s grandeur and the reason for working to protect it. 

Sunset in Lisbon, October 2023 (Photo by Thomas Gabernig)