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Ethical Supply Chain

Promoting ethical procurement and consumption on campuses and beyond
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SOS-UK delivers work across responsible sourcing and purchasing on behalf of NUS Services – the trading arm of NUS (National Union of Students) – which operates a purchasing consortium for students’ unions, as well as providing commercial development and marketing advice to its members.

The NUS Services ethical supply chain work includes:

  • Ethical sourcing: demonstrating a commitment to sourcing goods responsibly and ensuring the business practices of suppliers align with NUS and SOS-UK values.
  • Constructive engagement: proactively engaging with suppliers to address ethical issues and make positive changes.
  • Focus areas: driving action on key issues within the supply chain.

SOS-UK also represents NUS at the Responsible Procurement Group run by HEPA (Higher Education Procurement Association).

Continue reading to find out more about work in each of these areas.

Ethical sourcing

NUS has a commitment to sourcing goods responsibly and ensuring the business practices of their suppliers align with the organisation’s values. With increasing access to information that calls out the social and environmental challenges in supply chains, there is ever increasing demand from students for improved transparency, stewardship and accountability – as shown by our research.

Photo of cotton plant in India, courtesy of SU-stainable

NUS' Ethical Code of Conduct sets the expectations for NUS’ contracted suppliers, accompanied by a robust ethical and environmental screening process which includes assessment of supplier policies and commitments on a range of issues, including worker rights, political lobbying, environmental stewardship, animal welfare and health and safety. 

Where a supplier’s actions may be outside of the required standards, constructive engagement takes place to address these issues.

The approach takes a holistic view of sustainability, including social and economic matters as well as environmental. For example, NUS and SOS-UK are increasingly working with social enterprises, cooperatives and other purpose-led businesses in recognition of their broader values when it comes to people and planet.

Constructive engagement

NUS has a long history of conducting constructive engagement with suppliers on issues raised by students, and reflecting concerns in the public domain. NUS’ work with suppliers is unique in this respect, being able to engage with students then proactively engage with suppliers to address issues and make positive changes.

For more informationabout NUS’ approach, read the Constructive Engagement Policy.

Focus areas

In order to drive progress and engage suppliers, NUS and SOS-UK have identified several key ethical and environmental supply chain issues.

Our current focus areas are:

  • Plastics and other single-use waste
  • Zero-waste/unpackaged retail
  • Sustainable food
  • Clothing
  • Palm oil
Zero waste shop at Keele University SU

Plastics and other single-use waste

Research indicates 79% of students support a consumer levy on plastics and 52% support a ban of non-recyclable packaging. The challenge is massive – an estimated 322 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year and 8 million tonnes leak into our oceans. Plastic is so widely used, it is hard to imagine a world without it.

Action taken includes:

  • Running a Plastic Free Campaign in 2019, encouraging individuals, unions, and institutions to reduce single use plastics and opt for reusables whenever possible
  • Raising concerns over plastic pollution to NUS purchasing consortium suppliers through a data request on plastic to all food-to-go and soft drink suppliers, and asking them to provide alternatives to plastic and reduce plastic usage wherever possible
  • Recognising that simply moving from plastic packaging to, say, paper packaging for everything is not the answer either. After all, alternatives still must come from somewhere, whether that’s trees, mines or the ocean, and they may be less sustainable over their lifecycle. Questioning if packaging is required at all should be the starting point – read more and find practical suggestions here

Zero-waste/unpackaged retail

To support zero-waste/packaging free retail, NUS has…

  • Approved suppliers of packaging-free dispensing options for students’ unions meaning students can bring their own containers to pick and weigh the items they want to buy.
  • In 2019, through our sustainable food project Student Eats, five, student-led zero-waste social enterprises were part-funded and supported at King’s College London, Staffordshire University, University of Central Lancashire, University of East Anglia, and University of Stirling. Due to the scheme’s success we ran another funding round in the first half of 2020.

Sustainable food

The number of people adopting plant-based diets has rocketed in recent years. For example, people adopting a vegan diet in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 – from 150,000 to 600,000 (1.16% of the population). This change is happening on campuses too, with students increasingly keen to reduce the impact of their diet on the planet.

As well considering what we eat, it is crucial to consider how our food is produced too. Whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions are of course crucial in a climate emergency, we are also facing an ecological crisis. Sustainable food should be looked at holistically, including matters of animal welfare, biodiversity, social justice, land use and health.  We’ve progressed this through:

  • Acknowledging that this transition to a more just food system cannot happen overnight and a considered strategy is needed – we've outlined some practical actions this article
  • Joining the Eating Better alliance to accelerate action for less and better meat and dairy. The Eating Better roadmap to 2030 encourages the reduction of meat and dairy by at least 50% (with remaining produce sources from ethical sources e.g. organic). We’re planning how to support NUS’ suppliers on the Food Service and Food Retail aims from the roadmap


With lengthy supply chains, smallholder farmers, potential homeworkers and highly manual production processes, NUS takes a stringent approach to improving conditions in its clothing supply chains.

NUS supports Fairtrade certification as a means of ensuring guaranteed minimum prices and investment in community development in a supply chain that is dependent on smallholder farmers, often operating on the poverty line, and which experiences volatile cotton commodity prices often the volatility of the cotton commodity prices (often below farmer costs).

Within the NUS purchasing consortium action includes:

  • A requirement  to pay a 1% clothing levy on all clothing purchases, which is pooled and used to support audits and capacity building at garment factories
  • Provisions of ethical options including Fairtrade cotton, organic cotton and recycled polyester garments
  • Working with suppliers to provide reduced packaging at member request e.g. individual wrapping of each garment

If you're members of the NUS purchasing consortium, please refer to our supplier info.

Palm oil

Palm oil, grown in the tropics and used locally as a cooking oil, is also exported for use in a vast array of products from food products, household cleaning products, health and beauty products and biofuel – it is in 50% of packaged products. Palm oil is a highly productive crop, surpassing other vegetable oils in terms of yield but increasing demand and land degradation are leading to expansion of plantations across Asia, Africa and Latin America, destroying tropical forests and critical habitats in the process.

Experts suggest that striving toward sustainable palm oil practices is preferable over the complete removal of palm oil which would drive a switch to other crops which are less productive. The most prominent drive towards a baseline of sustainable palm oil is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification scheme, particularly the more stringent RSPO Identity Preserved and Segregated supply chains.

NUS action on this key issue includes:

  • A 2019 request to relevant suppliers to confirm the status of palm oil within their supply chains and to develop a palm oil sourcing policy
  • Integrating palm oil checks as standard at the tender stage for suppliers
  • Continuing to encourage suppliers towards RSPO Identity Preserved and Segregated supply chains or FairPalm

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Feel free to get in touch with the ethical supply chain coordinator Aqeel Kapasi with any queries in relation to NUS Services’ work in this area, including if you have any concerns over NUS suppliers.