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As David LePage took the stage on Wednesday evening at the Social Impact Purchasing Summit in Vancouver, he comfortably set a conversational tone for the summit. I felt like a welcome guest to a difficult conversation many small business owners and socially conscious purchasers have struggled with time and time again.

In chairs around David sat Marcia Nozick, CEO of EMBERS; Larry Berglund, a leading international ethical procurement consultant; and Brad Mills, CEO of Mills Basics. It was a taste of what was to come at the two-day event, a collection of experienced experts from many industries, effectively representing many sides of a very complex, difficult challenge of purchasing with positive social impact.

What does purchasing with “social impact” mean?

It may have been representative of the particular people in the room, or a challenge specific to Vancouver. But whatever the reason, the conversation began framing “social impact” around purchasing locally. It quickly expanded, however, to include challenges of fair trade, and other certifications, living wage, including benefits and working conditions, workforce development business models, and seasonality of local food products.

No one argued about the value of these benefits, either fundamentally or as a business’ differentiators. But difficulties revealed themselves in how to measure and value – in economic terms, the language of winning contract bids – the benefits of recirculating money with local suppliers. Is positive social impact accomplished by purchasing locally, by keeping money in the local economy? How do we know that has a positive impact?

That’s just the start, though. Even if we assume, as it seemed everyone at the summit did, that purchasing local does generate real benefits, how can such benefits be systematically measured? Would that be an effective driver of changing purchasing habits? Berglund suggests the first step of this challenge isn’t one for the procurers, but instead is the responsibility of social economists to better establish criteria for evaluation.

These are no easy challenges

Toby Barazzuol expressed a popular frustration with companies choosing the lowest price bid for a contract, large and small, without considering other impacts. Complementing Berglund’s popular point, he argued that consumer perspectives must change to consider the total value of a purchase, including implications of a living-wage employer on business sustainability, for example.

The best way to accomplish this change of perspective remains uncertain. At the closing remarks, Vancity’s Liz Lougheed-Green called for us to pick the low-hanging fruit, as a way to make meaningful first steps. Meanwhile, James Tansey, executive director of ISIS, called for an institutionalization of commitments from suppliers and buyers, which complements Berglund’s call for quantified impact evaluation methods.

Whichever actions you agree with, however, Amy Robinson of LOCO and Bob Purdy of Buy Smart point out an important goal, one that everyone in the beautiful Salt Building could embrace as well: communication of impacts is key. In Bob’s words, “Social impact purchasing delivers a story, which is a powerful tool to reach new audiences, tug at heartstrings, and get people mobilized.”

Related article: Social Impact Purchasing: Buyer be aware

Annie is an MBA Candidate at UBC, where she also serves as president of UBC Net Impact’s Graduate Chapter. She grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Turkey and France, moving to Vancouver from Chicago, where she managed an independent grocery store and kept her hands dirty as a bike mechanic and yogurt-making advocate. She looks forward to continuing to develop an impactful career that inspires innovative collaboration and builds sustainable communities around equitable, enjoyable food distribution.

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