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May 26, 2016

Setting aggressive environmental goals with health impacts in mind

For the largest US integrated healthcare system, ambitious waste management and water usage targets are an opportunity to boost employee engagement 

Even as leaders at many publicly listed companies are trying to wrap their heads around the best ways to approach sustainability reporting and set meaningful goals tied to their underlying business strategies, a handful of private organizations have made impressive progress in this area, despite having no or very few public disclosure requirements.

Kaiser Permanente, the largest integrated healthcare system in the US, which is a not-for-profit, is one of them. Last week it publicly updated its environmental goals toward 2025, after realizing it would meet or surpass goals it originally aimed to achieve by 2020 a few years ahead of schedule. The goals have arisen from Kaiser’s concern that unless habits change, the next 10 years threaten to undermine advances in public health through increased injuries and death from extreme heat and weather events, the spread of infectious diseases and mosquito-borne illnesses, worsening allergy and asthma conditions and other health risks.

While there are no sustainability standards Kaiser is required to meet due to the business it’s in, ‘we’ve elected to be transparent about a lot of our performance,’ says chief environmental officer Kathy Gerwig. ‘One example is that we were the first healthcare organization to publicly report our greenhouse gas emissions’ starting six or seven years ago. Most recently Kaiser has taken a step to verify its emissions and publicly report them through a climate registry.

Environmental stewardship comes under the community benefits group at Kaiser. Its board for hospitals and health plans operates largely through committees that meet three times a year in addition to the full board meetings. One of those committees is the community benefits committee, to which Gerwig reports at least once a year and sometimes more frequently, depending on what the board wants to know. Kaiser adopted its initial long-term environmental goals, targeted for 2020, after spending nearly a year on stakeholder engagement. That included asking managers and executives how certain goals being considered would play out for them, what barriers they expected to encounter and what they would need to succeed.

Among the goals it has pledged to achieve by 2025 are:
– To recycle, reuse or compost 100 percent of its non-hazardous waste
– To reduce the amount of water it uses by 25 percent, based on square footage of its facilities
– To increase its purchase of products and materials that meet environmental standards to 50 percent.

Given that the firm currently recycles, reuses or composts roughly 36 percent of its non-hazardous waste, getting to 100 percent over the next nine years will be a challenge, Gerwig acknowledges. ‘I feel managing waste is the bread and butter of being a sustainable organization,’ she says. ‘It’s not as flashy as investing in windmills and maybe not as controversial as working with suppliers on chemicals of concern. But if you don’t get the waste right, it says a lot about how deeply in the organization your programs are going.’

To avoid sending any of its non-hazardous waste to landfill will require nearly all 200,000 of Kaiser’s employees to play a role, Gerwig adds. ‘It takes such a high degree of commitment and reinforcement that I think it says a lot about how deeply sustainability is felt within an organization,’ she says. ‘That’s part of why I love that goal. Obviously, it’s great for the environment, but it also means we do and will have a very high degree of employee engagement.’

Healthcare workers understand that the waste their units generate has an environmental cost and related health implications. ‘That said, we need to make it easy for people to be able to manage their waste appropriately – and that’s the tricky part,’ Gerwig says, as it requires thought about which receptacles are needed, where they should be located and which waste streams confuse people. That will entail ongoing innovation and lots of work by the environmental services staff, as well as managers of the departments that are some of the bigger waste generators.

Kaiser has already cut the intensity of its water use by 15 percent from 2013 through 2015, much of it through system actions such as low-flow sinks and toilets and smart irrigation, Gerwig says. Reaching the 25 percent target will require individuals to think more carefully about their water use and reducing waste without compromising infection prevention methods. ‘We’re saying we don’t want to be treating the downstream health impacts of environmental hazards,’ Gerwig explains. ‘We’d rather address those hazards upfront; that’s what these goals are intending to do, and not just for us but also for the broader sector and the broader economy.’

And if getting serious about your sustainability goals can help improve employee engagement, isn’t that something that would serve good governance at most companies?

David Bogoslaw

Associate Editor and Online features producer for Corporate Secretary