Making sustainable development a part of all government policy and operations


Sustainable development means encouraging economic growth while protecting the environment and improving our quality of life - all without affecting the ability of future generations to do the same.

The government takes account of sustainable development as a part of how it develops its policies, how it runs its buildings and how it buys its goods and services.

All departments are responsible for making sure that their own policies and activities contribute to sustainable development. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a role in overseeing sustainable development across central government.


Business planning

We make sure that all departmental business plans contain actions that contribute to sustainable development. Business plans for 2012 to 2013 were the first to do this.

Departments review their progress towards sustainable development every year and report on it in their annual reports and accounts.

Sustainability indicators

We have developed a new set of sustainable development indicators (SDIs). These are statistics which help measure national progress on key issues that are important economically, socially and environmentally in the long term.

Indicators about the economy include gross domestic product (GDP), median income and poverty.

Examples of indicators relating to society are healthy life expectancy, fuel poverty and housing provision.

Environmental indicators include greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy consumption and bird populations. Looking at the indicator set as a whole helps us to see whether the country’s development takes into account all of these issues.

Read more about the SDIs.

Greening government

Greening government commitments are targets for central government departments and their agencies to reduce waste, water usage and carbon emissions by 2015.

They’re mainly meant to reduce impact on the environment (using less paper means cutting down fewer trees, for example) but they’re also there to improve operational efficiency. For example, reducing carbon emissions across government between 2009 to 2010 and 2011 to 2012 saved the taxpayer an estimated £45 million in fuel bills.

We published the first annual report on our progress towards the 2015 targets in December 2012 and the second annual report in December 2013.

Sustainable procurement

Public sector spending is worth approximately 16% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Central government alone buys the equivalent of 9% of GDP.

The public sector can use this buying power to encourage suppliers to make their products and services sustainable. It can also use its buying power to make the way contractors carry out works sustainable.

Carrying out works means - for example - building an office block. Doing works sustainably could mean ensuring that the office block is energy-efficient or working in ways designed to reduce waste.

Sustainable procurement is also about reducing costs to the buyer over the lifetime of a particular product. For example, the lifetime cost of a computer includes the initial price the customer pays and also the price of the energy it uses in its lifetime. An expensive, but energy-efficient, computer could be more cost-effective in the long run.

Taking factors such as energy use into account means sustainable procurement also helps protect the environment, as well as reducing the risk of exposure to future rises in energy costs.

Defra continues to develop the Government Buying Standards and maintain other guidance including the Flexible Framework for the assistance of central government and the wider public sector.

Central government departments and agencies are expected to use the Government Buying Standards to comply with the Greening Government Commitments. They’re also expected to collect and publish information about the impacts of their supply chain. These can include the environmental impacts of businesses such as facilities management companies, which provide them with services or products.

Our Timber Procurement Policy commits us to buying sustainable and properly sourced timber. Departments can get advice on sourcing timber through the Central Point of Expertise of Timber (CPET)

We’ve also created the Sustainable Public Procurement Programme. This is a training programme for people working in government procurement.


We launched our vision for sustainable development in April 2011. In it we said that we wanted to make sustainable development ‘central to the way we make policy, run our buildings and purchase goods and services’.

See more on government policy, action and support on sustainable development.

Who we’re working with

The Environmental Audit Committee reviews government progress towards sustainable development. Defra’s ministers are sometimes invited to give evidence to the committee on how the government is doing. Read more about the committee’s inquiries into sustainable development.

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