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Public sector procurement and ethical trade: Governance and social responsibility in some hidden global supply chains

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Alexandra Hughes



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Wiley-Blackwell, 2019.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


This paper places a critical spotlight on the ways in which governance and social responsibility concerning labour standards work in the context of public sector procurement. Supply chains provisioning the public sector, incorporating a vast array of materials used in public services such as education, health, social housing and transportation, have been under-researched and under-theorized in the geographical and wider social science literature on Global Production Networks (GPNs), Global Value Chains (GVCs) and consumption ethics. Against this backdrop, the paper evaluates the emergence of ethical trading programmes involving labour standards in UK public sector sourcing, drawing on examples from the health, higher education, construction and transportation sectors and a methodology combining interviews with participant observation. Findings show that ethical public procurement is shaped, and often constrained, by: the relatively low profile of many materials used in public services, which challenge effective campaigning and advocacy work; the consequent limits to reputational risk for state departments and first-tier suppliers if labour issues are encountered in their supply chains; and the significant role of EU and UK procurement law, which until 2014 rendered social responsibility in public sector sourcing a legal risk to specify. Through a practice-orientated approach and adopting the notion of responsibilization inspired by governmentality perspectives, the paper grasps how these challenges for ethical public procurement are encountered and negotiated by procurement managers and those influencing them in a neoliberal environment. It is shown that ethical sourcing is significantly less advanced in the UK public sector than it is in consumer goods sectors, with implications for social justice in a whole realm of under-researched global supply chains.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Hughes A, Morrison E, Ruwanpura K

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Year: 2019

Volume: 44

Issue: 2

Pages: 242-255

Print publication date: 01/06/2019

Online publication date: 07/10/2018

Acceptance date: 27/08/2018

Date deposited: 27/08/2018

ISSN (print): 0020-2754

ISSN (electronic): 1475-5661

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell


DOI: 10.1111/tran.12274


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