Vancouver's 'Buy Global' Practices Cost Local Jobs, Say Critics

Home town office supplier axed workers when city dropped it for int'l corporation.

By Adam Pez 6 Jun 2012 |

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Vancouver city hall: Councillors 'don't realize what's going on in their own procurement department,' says LOCO BC's Amy Robinson.

Mills Basics, as its name implies, provides the basics. It's a company headquartered in Metro Vancouver, and for 21 years it has supplied the City of Vancouver with pencils, office chairs, staplers, paper-clips and other bureaucratic necessities. But last year the city pulled the company's contract, along with that of another local company -- Planet Clean -- in favour of internationally owned Grand & Toy.

"We were shocked by that, because we're cutting edge when it comes to electric bikes, electric trucks and closed-loop delivery," said Mills Basics CEO Brent Mills. "When we had our debrief, they said our price is too high, and in terms of sustainability, everyone has caught up to us."

Advocates for local businesses say local governments need to ensure more city contracts are filled by companies based regionally to ensure city sustainability. Doing such, they say, would generate more jobs and local tax dollars, and make local economies more resilient in the face of economic shocks, like the 2008 downturn.

But while some Canadian cities have started to forge ahead with local food procurement strategies, other things like office and cleaning supplies are being neglected, said Amy Robinson from LOCO BC, a consultancy firm for local businesses. Because of free trade agreements signed by the provincial and federal governments, cities are opting increasingly to contract out to multinational firms, and that's needlessly costing British Columbians jobs, she said.

Those agreements "make it increasingly complex for people to specifically require local companies. I would like to see (the city) at least acknowledge the social, economic and environmental benefit of buying from a local company," she said.

City hall hasn't 'landed' on local buying: Johnston

Vancouver is hardly an outlier on its procurement policies. Canadian cities consistently lag behind their American counterparts at giving local businesses a leg up in city contract competition, said Robinson.

But the City of Vancouver, in recent years, has tried to distinguish itself by pursuing a "sustainable" procurement policy that would weed out companies with bad environmental or social track records.

"We're not totally landed on where local will fit in with our sustainable procurement program with products," said Vancouver deputy manager Sadhu Aufochs Johnston.

The city's current procurement plan, approved in 2005, provides stipulations for ensuring goods are acquired transparently, and from reputable suppliers who don't employ child labour or produce faulty, toxic or environmentally-destructive products. But the plan makes no mention of a policy that would help enable local businesses to get more of the city contract pie.

The city is considering implementing local procurement policies for food, Johnston added.

"We see local as the greatest bang for our buck for money we might spend for that, versus computers where we probably go more towards low toxicity, energy efficiency. For carpet and janitorial supplies, low toxicity and recyclability. We are looking at the right opportunity based on the product," he said.

Food could offer one such "unique opportunity" to leverage city procurement dollars in a way that will promote local agriculture and business, he said. But even so, he added, NAFTA and other trade pacts raise "challenges" that the city will need to understand before moving forward.

When The Tyee asked what those challenges were, Johnston said he would have to ask a city lawyer.

Trade deals can stand in the way

Local business advocates and green groups have for a long time voiced concerns that free trade agreements could be hampering municipal ability to pursue local procurement policies.

Currently, the Northwest Partnership Trade Agreement -- formerly known as TILMA -- requires equal consideration to be given to suppliers from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan for goods greater than $10,000, and for services and construction of $100,000 or more. As part of the agreement, the pact sets up a dispute resolution panel whereby companies can seek damages if they sense a local government is discriminating against them.

In March 2011, Summerland Waste -- a local waste management company -- lost a District of Summerland waste contract to BFI Canada Inc. -- a multinational firm. The switch prompted the Council of Canadians -- an advocacy group for sustainable policies -- to voice concern that TILMA was creating a "chill effect" prompting municipalities to drop local suppliers for multinational ones.

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