The early adopters in the Social Procurement Paradigm Shift!

*This post originally appeared on Accelerating Social Impact, a CCC founded by David LePage with the mission to accelerate blended value business and investment opportunities to build healthy communities.

The dominant paradigm is how we define the current standard practices, and the routine pattern of behaviour. A paradigm shift is a move to a new dominant paradigm. The change goes through several phases: first exploration, then experimentation and then the early adaptors. The identifiable presence of the early adaptors signals that the groundwork is laid, the stage is set for the surge of others to participate in a new model.

The social purchasing activities of the public sector in Canada are announcing a new procurement paradigm. Governments are strategically using their existing purchasing to create social value. Social procurement is utilizing procurement policies and practices to affect social impact. Social impact results in measurable improvements in the living standards of individuals, groups and communities.

In 2013, when I wrote a research paper “Exploring Social Procurement” it was almost entirely theoretical because of the lack of evidence, case studies and relevant research. The paper was a review of the barriers and the opportunities of public sector social procurement along with a set of recommendations to move forward. It seems the paper, commissioned by Employment and Social Development Canada, a federal government ministry, was a harbinger of a purchasing system ready to spring out of its old practices and patterns.

Today we can actually track many of the early explorers, experimenters and early adopters in the social purchasing paradigm shift.

In 2003, Vancouver’s Fast Track to Employment launched the first Social Purchasing Portal, SPP, as an early experiment in utilizing the demand side of the market place to create targeted employment. Mills Basics Office Supplies was an early SPP employer/partner and continues growing as a social values business. The Caledon Institute and Vancouver Social Venture Partners were early explorers.  

In 2005 the City of Vancouver under Larry Berglund’s leadership adopted an ethical purchasing policy. Although a valuable policy, it didn’t get the traction that was expected. In 2010 the Vancouver Olympics did some social purchasing trials. The 2010 efforts influenced games related social purchasing at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Then there were Pan AM games employee diversity initiatives in Toronto in 2013.

All of these Canadian initiatives and other isolated experiments were part of an international growing interest in social procurement and Community Benefit Agreements in Australia, Scotland, and Britain. These were the explorers and the experimenters of social purchasing, leading the paradigm shift into new territory beyond just price, quality and green.

After years of many players nourishing that supportive environment on the supply side, and others planting the seeds on the demand side, the conditions were established for a tipping point. And over the past three years there has been a dramatic acceleration of public sector social procurement activity, leading the way of early adaptors in the paradigm shift.

Our recent Buy Social Canada webinar explored the latest developments in Canada’s Public Sector Social Procurement. We can now identify activities at every level of government and in several Crown Corporations:


Vancouver City Council endorses social procurement and Buy Social in November 2015

Vancouver puts social enterprise criteria into an RFP for office supplies in early 2016

The village of Cumberland, population 3500, adopts a social purchasing program in the spring 2016, and uses it to help select a contractor for a road construction project.

Canada’s largest municipality of Toronto passed a social purchasing program focused on creating employment opportunities in the spring of 2016


British Columbia published the Social Purchasing Guidelines in November 2014

BC issues an RFP for security services at SDSI offices with a 20% value for social impact created through employment of persons on income assistance or disabilities support.

Ontario Government introduces Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act (Bill 6) in 2015

Manitoba puts social purchasing into their Social Enterprise Strategy, 2015.

Quebec has a social economy purchasing strategy since 2014.


Mandate letter for the Ministry of Government Procurement includes ‘social purchasing’

MP Hussen’s Private Member’s Bill 227, promotes the potential to add social value unto federal infrastructure spending. It has had an initial reading in Parliament, and moves to further debate on September 23.


BC Housing has contracted with social enterprise CleanStart for a multi-million multi-year junk removal contract after including a social enterprise emphasis in an RFP in late 2014

Manitoba Housing commits over $10million towards social purchasing that targets employment development for persons with barriers

The perceived risks of rising costs and trade agreement transgressions are being proven wrong. Rather government is obtaining even greater value for taxpayers and communities through social value purchasing decisions.

The shift is happening in the public sector purchasing that will inevitably result in their private sector suppliers to ‘figure it out’. Private sector providers will adapt their services to include opportunities for social enterprises with a demonstrated and measurable social value.

We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift to where social value is an embedded component of procurement policy and practice.