The doctor will see you now
Many industries and large companies have focused on greening their supply chains in recent years. Walmart, for example, has transformed entire companies that supply products to their stores by asking suppliers to aggressively reduce packaging materials and weight, saving on fuel, reducing greenhouse gases and cutting down waste. In 2011, 60 leading apparel and footwear brand launched the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the clothes worn every day.
Walmart and the maker of your favorite jeans are fairly visible to consumers, and their efforts to green their supply chains have a big ripple effect across their sectors. Another large-scale industry is engaged in this process, and as efforts to green this sector’s supply chain are successful, it could have a significant, sweeping and far-reaching impact. The industry? Health care, which accounts for 17 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product and employs 18 million Americans.
Big impact, big challenges
The health care sector has good reason to take sustainability seriously. Health care is the second largest user of energy of any sector. It generates over 5.9 million tons of waste, and hospitals are generally one of the largest water users in local communities. Hospitals, with 24/7 operations, have a large carbon footprint.
More concerning is that environment and health are intertwined. The President of the United State’s 2008-2009 Cancer Report states “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and encourages action to reduce exposure to carcinogens. Many hospitals are seeking ways to reduce any contributors to disease. In light of health care’s credo, “first do no harm,” sustainability has become part of the mission for hospitals and health systems.
The billions that health care facilities spend on supplies and equipment in any given year are a part of health care’s big impact. There are numerous associated environmental and human health impacts in the manufacture, use and disposal of products, from raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing, distribution, use, maintenance, and end-of-life disposal.
For some products purchased, impacts on patient and staff health are of particular worry, such as cleaning solutions, polyvinyl chloride bags and tubes and other products that contain chemicals affecting or suspected of affecting human health.
Unlike the apparel or retail industries, however, health care is a highly regulated operation, and often products are tailored for specific medical applications. In addition, safety and reliability of products are important to hospitals and health care facilities. Meeting these requirements with environmentally preferable products can be a challenge.