In 2005, the UK government published a sustainable development strategy, calling on public procurers to leverage more sustainable outcomes through their supply chains. This led to Sir Neville Sims’ 2006 report that included the “Flexible Framework” guidance for measuring and monitoring sustainable procurement.

The Sustainable Procurement Task Force chaired by Sir Neville Sims developed the Flexible Framework as part of a report issued in 2006, “Procuring the Future” for the UK public sector. It became a widely used self-assessment mechanism allowing organisations to measure and monitor their progress on sustainable procurement over time, covering five themes.

Despite emerging well over a decade ago, I still receive a lot of questions about the Framework with some organisations continuing to utilise it to improve their sustainable procurement practices.

There have been numerous changes to sustainable procurement policy over the years, including the introduction of the British Standard in 2010, which is now superseded by the internationally-recognised ISO 20400 standard on sustainable procurement, introduced last year.

So why do organisations still hark back to the Flexible Framework when more comprehensive, detailed and relevant guidance is available? Despite the numerous changes, it seems users still like the simplicity of the maturity matrix approach.

Although the Framework is no longer fit-for-purpose, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’.

What are the limitations?

Lack of differentiation

Every organisation is different and will have a different combination of reasons to practice sustainable procurement. The Framework does not encourage users to really go back to basics and identify the unique set drivers for sustainability to help ensure that the goals and objectives they set are appropriate.

Siloed approach

The Framework fails to adequately link a sustainable procurement policy and strategy back to any organisational CSR or sustainability policy that exists. This is key to demonstrating how procurement can deliver value and contribute to organisational goals.

Narrow field

The Framework doesn’t stress the need to engage with a wider group of stakeholders beyond immediate suppliers.

Leadership buy-in

We don’t see a focus on leadership and an appropriate governance structure, which is a critical component of successful sustainable procurement. All sustainability success stories at a procurement, project or organisational level that I have been witness to, have been underpinned by proactive and visible leadership. (Think the 2012 Olympics or Marks & Spencer here…)

Change in legislation

Our thinking (and legislation) has moved on, with organisations now recognising their obligation to understand, take responsibility for, and improve practices within their extended supply chains. Purchasers can no longer plead ignorance as to what is happening in upstream supply chains. Due diligence checks are an important tool in delivering a sustainable procurement strategy, as is the concept of complicity. ISO 20400 now provides advice on how to incorporate these issues into a policy.

Addressing grievences

Absent from the Framework are grievance mechanisms. Implementing such mechanisms is now considered good practice. It allows anybody in the supply chain to raise a grievance and ensure its properly and independently investigated.


Priority-setting is under-emphasised in the Flexible Framework. This should take place on multiple levels; initially when setting procurement goals and objectives (informed by the drivers exercise), and then at a more granular level for the supply chain. ISO 20400 sets out a stage-by-stage process to produce priority heat maps on which to base an organisation’s sustainable procurement strategy; starting at a category level and working down to supplier level, if necessary. This ensures that requests of suppliers are relevant to their category of supply and that those requests support the organisation’s sustainability goals.

Opportunities, not just risks

The procurement process within the Framework focuses on risk assessment without adequate emphasis on delivering positive social and environmental outcomes. This reflects the thinking at the time, when risk management was a primary driver to undertaking sustainable procurement. Thinking has changed…

Measuring the change

A major criticism of the Flexible Framework was its failure to focus on measuring actual outcomes to assess whether sustainable procurement efforts were making a real difference. Measurement remains an area where many organisations struggle, often because strong, clear objectives have not been agreed in the first place.


The Flexible Framework may be dismissed by some as a ‘tick box’ exercise, but the maturity matrix approach has its positives, notably its simplicity and ease of use. Although, a single page matrix can no longer effectively reflect best practice in this space, we should take some important lessons on how to keep things simple and focused on what really matters.

A succinct five-page guide, the edie.explains ISO20400 Guide brings readers up to date with sustainable procurement thinking.

For more information

Cathy Berry, Senior Consultant
+44 775 749 7180

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