Technical specifications
© Gabrielle Henderson, Unsplash

Technical specifications

  • Procurement
  • Aid
  • Procurement criteria

Technical specifications lay out the characteristics required of products or services. Buying products using environmental or climate-related criteria can be an impactful way to reduce the procurement-related footprint of an organisation.

Why is this solution important?

To drastically reduce the emissions related to procurement, choosing items with a lower carbon and environmental footprint is key. Technical specifications play an important role as they translate abstract goals into concrete requirements at product-level for suppliers.

What is the solution?

Technical specifications can cover all steps of the life cycle of a product or service, from the raw material to the disposal phase.(1) For example:

  • Origin of materials: using wood from sustainably managed forests
  • Production method: use of renewable energy in the production process
  • Delivery: using low-emission vehicles for product delivery
  • Use phase: defining a threshold for CO2 emissions from vehicles; repairability
  • Disposal: requiring the product to be easy to dissemble

Technical specifications can also be a means to integrate circular economy principles. Organisations can, for example, request items to be of recycled materials, remanufactured or repairable. They can also ask suppliers to take back items, at least for relevant categories and in certain geographical regions.

Whilst it is relatively easy to require environmental specifications for some categories (e.g. IT equipment, vehicles, cleaning products, stationary, catering), this is not necessarily (yet) the case for some of the high-impact items of the aid sector, or for locally produced items.

Notably for products for which more environmental-friendly alternatives are currently not widely available, organisations can consider integrating environmental evaluation and award criteria. The different offers can then be weighted and compared with competitors, providing products with a lower impact a better scoring. This allows the buying organisation to test the availability of alternatives and move progressively towards products or services with an improved carbon or environmental footprint as the market evolves.

Especially smaller organisations may also consider getting started with more generic procurement guidelines that lay down key principles for the main products and services they buy. (See example Stanford University below.)

Key facts


Recycled paper has 37% lower emissions than virgin paper (2)


Using recycled aluminium reduces the footprint from 12 tCOe to 0.3 tCOe per tonne of aluminium (3)


Buying a reconditioned smartphone instead of a new one saves about 80% of CO2 emissions (4)

Technical specifications
© Alexandra Tran, Unsplash

Key Actions

  • #1 Engage with procurement teams and suppliers

    Involve the procurement function early in the process to ensure specifications are adapted to the respective markets. For high impact items, buyers can also start questioning key suppliers about alternatives with a lower carbon or environmental footprint.

  • #2 Implement specifications for items and services for which it is easy to do

    Identify products and services for which environmental specifications can relatively easily be implemented, and example specifications are readily available. Key resources are provided below.

  • #3 Implement specifications for high impact items

    Refer to the organisation’s carbon footprint to identify items with the highest footprint and/or analyse spend data to identify items that are sourced in large numbers and may have a  high impact on local pollution. Implement environmental specifications in collaboration with procurement, suppliers, the sustainability department. Seek external expertise, as needed.

  • #4 Leverage evaluation criteria

    Use environmental evaluation and award criteria instead of strict technical specifications if it is unclear how the market will respond to ambitious technical specifications. Suppliers that offer products that go beyond the minimum environmental specifications are thereby rewarded with a better evaluation of their offer.

  • #5 Consider local differences

    When sourcing locally manufactured products, consider adapting specifications to the local circumstances. Communicate ambitions to local suppliers and use opportunities to engage with suppliers to improve their practices, wherever possible.

  • #6 Leverage contract renewals

    Take the opportunity of contract renewals to improve specifications and eventually change suppliers. At a minimum, communicate carbon reduction goals to suppliers during renewal negotiations.

  • #7 Collaborate

    Exchange good practices and technical specifications with peers and harmonise requirements notably for key items, where possible. Consider engaging in the Climate Action Accelerator procurement workstream.

To be considered

  • Potential co-benefits

    • Financial benefits for certain items and services.
    • New opportunities for suppliers that offer products with a lower impact, notably in local markets.
    • Contribution to a circular economy.
  • Success Conditions

    • Working closely with procurement and the quality assurance department.
  • Prerequisites & Specificities

    • At least for high impact items: Involving or consulting suppliers early in the process.
  • Potential risks

    • Market readiness: certain ambitious specifications might not be available yet.


Success stories

ICRC & IFRC – Sourcing of durable products

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) request products to be long-lasting as one of the goals of its sustainable procurement approach (7). By reducing the replacement rate and facilitating reuse and repair, the carbon and environmental impact of items can be reduced. For example, the plastic bucket for distribution has to be made either of a mix of LDPE or HDPE, or of PPCP, materials that increase the durability of the item as compared to other polymers (8). Another example consists of a long-lasting geodesic family tent.(9)

USAID/BHA – Integrating recycled content and improving packaging

USAID/BHA is in the process of integrating various environmental sustainability measures into its commodity specifications and requesting suppliers for options like manufacturing products that have partial/whole composition from recycled content. In addition, a number of criteria to reduce packaging, optimising palletising and loadability of transport units and using alternative packaging material are requested.(10)

City of Ghent, Belgium – Procuring sustainable office supplies

The City of Ghent has a Sustainable Procurement Strategy in place, focused on the topics of only ordering what is necessary, repair, repurposing, sustainable procurement criteria and reuse and recycling.(11) For the procurement of paper and office supplies a number of sustainable technical specifications were included, e.g. remanufactured toners and cartridges, 100% recycled paper, or if not available certified paper, preference for reusable and refillable products. Transport-related emissions were reduced through the reduction of delivery frequency. The case study also provides the applied award criteria.

Denmark – Procuring sustainable furniture

In 2012, Denmark’s central procurement agency concluded a 4-year framework agreement for the sourcing of sustainable furniture for 67 municipalities. The technical specifications included requirements on the origin of the timber (at least 70% recycled or from verified sustainable sources) and limits on the use of chemicals. The furniture also had to be easy to dissemble and the material had to be recoverable, making it easier to recycle and exchange worn-out parts. On-site repair works have been procured to extend the lifetime of the furniture. The total expected turnover of the agreement was more than 27 million EUR during the four-year agreement. It generated savings of up to 26% compared to market prices.

Tools and good practices

  • ICLEI, The Procura+ Manual, 2016

    The manual provides clear, easy-to-understand guidance on how to implement sustainable procurement. The manual targets public authorities, but provides a general framework and well-presented information, including case studies, that are relevant for any type of organisation. Chapter III features a dedicated section on technical specifications.

    Click here
  • Stanford University, Responsible Purchasing Guidelines

    The document outlines the principles for responsible buying at Stanford University. Whilst it does not include all detailed technical specifications, the document explains the chosen approach and generic requirements for key items the university sources (office supplies, lab consumables, cleaning supplies, chemicals, electronic equipment, furniture).

    Click here
  • French Repairability Index (in french)

    The reparability index is a tool that was put in place through the French anti-waste law to enable a circular economy by providing information about the repairability of certain products. The score (ranging from 1 to 10) has to be displayed on selected electrical and electronic appliances, and allows consumers to be better informed about the extent to which their purchases are repairable – or not.  The following products are currently concerned: smartphones, laptops, televisions, lawnmowers, washing machines, hoovers, dishwashers and high pressure cleaners. By 2024, the Repairability Index will become the “Sustainability Index” as new criteria such as robustness or reliability of products will be added. Buyers of humanitarian organisations could require that relevant products achieve a certain minimum score.

    List of products and their repairability index

To go further

  • Sustainable Public Procurement. How to “Wake the Sleeping Giant”. Introducing the United Nations Environment Programme’s Approach, 2021

    The Sustainable Public Procurement Implementation Guidelines, or ‘Guidelines,’ provide a methodology and roadmap for successfully designing and implementing Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) policies and action plans. It also has a dedicated section on Life Cycle Costing.

    Read here
  • European Commission, Buying Green! A Handbook on Green Public Procurement, 2016

    A guide on how to integrate sustainability into procurement. The key steps can be adapted to organisations from the aid sector. It also includes a number of good practice examples.

    Read here


(1) Adapted from ICLEI , The Procura+ Manual, 2016, p. 57, Read here

(2) RePaperProject, Paperwork: Comparing recycled to virgin paper, 2012, Read here

(3) Material Economics, The Circular Economy, A Powerful Force for Climate Mitigation, p. 102. As large amount of energy is needed for the primary production of aluminium, the key determinant for emissions per tonne of aluminium is what type of energy is used. Coal-based production leads to 17 tCO2 / tonne of aluminium. The figure of 12 tCO2 per tonne of aluminium is based on the global average energy mix. Read here

(4) Backmarket, New vs. Refurbished: The Environmental Impact of the Tech Industry. Read here

(5) EaPGreen, Handbook on Sustainable Public Procurement. Integration Sustainability Criteria into Public Procurement Procedures, 2016. Read here

(6) Adapted from EaPGreen, Handbook on Sustainable Public Procurement. Integration Sustainability Criteria into Public Procurement Procedures, 2016, Read here

(7) ICRC/IFRC, Information Sheet Sustainable Procurement, Read here

(8) ICRC/IFRC, Standard Products Catalogue, Read here

(9) CICR/FIFRC, Catalogue des produits standard, Read here

(10) USAID NFI BPA- Kitchen Sets, Buckets, Aquatabs, Read here

(11) Ghent Sustainability Report 2020, Read here

Cover photo: © Gabrielle Henderson, Unsplash