Drivers and barriers in organizing sustainable purchasing at Heijendaal


In order to develop the sustainable campus at Heijendaal, various stakeholders have to collaborate. An important dyad in these collaborations are the buying organizations, being the RU, RUMC and the HAN and the suppliers of goods. Together, they can tackle and work on sustainability related issues in their supply chain. Hence, an important role here lies in the purchasing function to leverage this topic. However, it remains challenging to integrate sustainability in this relationship. Therefore, this study investigates the most important drivers and barriers in developing sustainable purchasing.

Context and relevance

Sustainable purchasing is an important facilitator in integrating sustainability in the Heijendaal living lab. Until recently, purchasing had been tasked with predominantly focusing on purchasing goods for the lowest cost and the highest service possible. However, over time sustainability has become increasingly important as well in this department, as it became evident that it had an important role to play. During the tendering process, the buyer organizations can involve, develop or demand that the suppliers help to drive sustainability in the supply chain. They have the ability to set a number of important ground rules on which products will be used and how they are going to be delivered to the campus hub. However, as mentioned earlier, this is not always an easy task. Actors in these departments face various barriers, both internally and externally, which hinder the integration of sustainability. At the same time, there may also be important drivers that can be identified to help this process along. Sustainable purchasing does not necessarily has to consist of making either/or decisions that exclude opportunities, but can look at how competing demands can be pursued simultaneously. This study looked at some of these drivers and barriers in the supply chains of the RU and the HAN, and how these sometimes competing demands may affect each other.

Research question

Based on this backdrop, the following research question was pursued:

How do barriers and drivers influence the implementation and development of sustainable purchasing at Heijendaal?


Research approach

This research was conducted by a master thesis student from Radboud University. For this research, the RU and the HAN were involved as individual cases and also compared to each other. Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, the RUMC was not involved. To gain a good representation of the situation, nine interviews were conducted from various levels of the two organizations, so managers but also operational employees doing the actual purchasing. For the analysis a paradoxical, or tensions, perspective was used to identify competing demands (e.g. cost reduction vs. sustainability) in order to gain a better understanding of (emerging) barriers, but also to identify drivers that could efficiently deal with these tensions. This resulted in an overview of internal and external drivers and barriers, as well as a more in-depth analysis of how these competing demands may affect each other.  


Based on the analysis of the interviews several barriers and drivers have been identified that influence the implementation and development of sustainable purchasing. Below we provide a brief summary:

  Drivers Barriers
Internal Top management supportFinancial benefitsMoral/ethical motivationReputation benefits Lack of consensus at management levelCosts Lack of specific knowledge and goals
External Government regulationsCompetitive advantage Stakeholder involvementBuyer-supplier relation Government regulations/legislationStakeholder commitment Stakeholder involvementBuyer-supplier relation

These different drivers and barriers can influence tensions within the organizations, since they influence the economic, environmental and social dimensions which can each add or destroy value to organizations. It is critical to understand these paradoxes as they describe the interrelatedness of different drivers and barriers and the influence which they have on sustainable purchasing collectively. The perceived tensions within the Living Lab context are discussed below.

Performing tensions
The plurality of stakeholders in the collaboration can cause goal incongruence. Top management support and moral/ethical motivations of employees drive the sustainable purchasing of the universities, while the lack of consensus at the management level and lack of goals can act as roadblocks towards achieving this goal. The disagreement concerning goals between different layers within the organization can result in friction and resistance, thus alignment is needed.

Organizing or change tension
Change requires the organizations to shift their present process patterns. When change tensions arise, there are clear contrasts in the areas where change is most critical. For example, which economic, environmental, or social factors are seen as more important and how they affect the change that should be implemented. As there is a continuity of movement within and between the drivers and barriers, the universities need to alter processes and achieve shared goals amongst departments. The sustainable purchasing policy is tightly imposed on employees which requires both flexibility and guidance and allowance from management. Some employees are internally driven but others require more knowledge, awareness and steering to initiate change.

Belonging tension
Sustainability can have contrasting meanings to different individuals represented in the layers within organizations and different collectives. For example, what an individual decision maker considers to be a good solution to a sustainability issue may not receive support at an organizational level. While some people are motivated to solve a social or environmental issue and believe that their company is a suitable place to start, others may not believe that sustainability is an issue that their business should address. The norms and values of employees need to be aligned to achieve the required behavioral change, necessary for a successful operationalization of sustainable purchasing.

Learning or temporal tension
Temporal tensions emerge from the existence of different time horizons in the organizations. As sustainability often demands a long-term time horizon, for managers this can be difficult to address as they often emphasize short-term results. Consequently, organizations can face circumstances in which the best course of action in the short term do not align with the long run. The purchasing policy aims to increase the procurement and usage of “green product and services”. The short-term implications are clear, but there is still uncertainty on how these changes influence the long-term. Making collective choices in the long run may diminish conflict over short-term finite resources as managers understand that every decision is temporary and likely to alter in the future.


Conclusions, policy recommendations and directions for future research

This study aimed to provide insights into the main drivers and barriers for implementing and developing sustainable purchasing at the organizations at the Heijendaal campus. Based on the analysis there are a number of conclusions:


      1. The most persistent drivers are the moral/ethical motivations of employees and the support of the top management. The main barriers are costs and the lack of specified knowledge and goals. In practice, this leads to a willingness to change, but a lack of knowledge and specific goals and further cost implications hinder this process.

      1. The time orientation of the sustainable-purchasing policy is short-term oriented. However, for an aligned vision, clear goals and pillars must be emphasized in the long term. The interaction between short-term performance and sustainable transformation in the long-term causes a temporal tension.

      1. As the moral and ethical motivations of individuals within the universities are a critical driver, a belonging tension exists when the norms and values of different employees collide. For a successful operationalization of sustainable purchasing, the norms and values of employees need to be aligned to achieve the required behavioral change of individuals (see summary x).

      1. The performance tension occurs when there is not enough alignment of goals amongst different stakeholders. Transformational leadership, which address both social/environmental and economic factors, can help in coping with the organization/change tension.