Our climate is changing. We’ve seen heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and floods – not just in far-flung parts of the globe, but also right here in the UK.

Over recent years, as the world has been waking up to the scale of the challenge, colleagues here at the Health Foundation started to ask questions. Is there anything we can we do as an organisation? Can we make a difference? What should our role be? The stark reality that many of us are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation really able to do something about it resounded loud and clear.

We felt that as a funder, investor and a workplace with a carbon footprint, we should be taking responsibility for the impact we have on the environment. We also realised that, given the link between planetary health and human health, and our charitable mission to improve the health of the nation, environmental sustainability should be a golden (or more appropriately, green) thread that runs through everything we do.

In 2019, while Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate and the Extinction Rebellion movement were showcasing the power of collective action to raise awareness and stimulate change, we launched a programme to improve our environmental sustainability. We initially focused on how we manage our workplace and events, how we give grants and invest our endowment, and on our role as a provider of analysis and research. Since then, we’ve also been thinking more widely and boldly about how we can improve and demonstrate responsible stewardship of our resources. ​

​​While there is still a long way to go, I’m delighted to share some highlights of the tangible progress we’ve made so far.

Embedding sustainability in how we operate

To reduce our impact on the environment, we first needed to get a handle on what that impact is. We started collecting data on our electricity consumption, gas usage and travel, and are now publishing this in our annual report. We’re also gathering data on more complex aspects of our footprint, such as the impact of hybrid working now our staff work both remotely and in the office.

We also reviewed and made changes to the way we give our grants. We researched different ways to improve the sustainability of our awards and contracts. We also interviewed our stakeholders to understand what they think we should prioritise – ranging from simple actions like virtual (instead of in-person) interviews, through to direct funding for environmentally focused programmes. We have incorporated a non-assessed question on sustainability into our grant applications, as well stipulating that meetings should be virtual by default, and will be introducing more changes over time.

We will continue to directly fund work that has an environmental focus, such as training for health care professionals and students on sustainable quality improvement, led by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, and the UK-wide Health Anchors Learning Network, which is part of our partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement to explore and enhance the role of the NHS as an anchor institution.

As an organisation that frequently holds meetings and events, we developed a sustainable events guide to help make our events as sustainable as possible – covering catering, venues, travel and event materials. While many of our meetings and events will continue to be virtual, where they are in-person we endeavour to use the most sustainable venues, suppliers and catering, and reduce, reuse and recycle event materials.

Building a net zero endowment

We are conscious of the impact our investment portfolio can have – both positive and negative – and have put in place measures to achieve a more socially and environmentally responsible endowment. This includes a Responsible Investment Policy, which guides how we invest our funds in three ways:

  • acting as a responsible investor, which will include measuring the impact of our endowment against UN Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 13
  • working with our investment managers to ensure their environmental, social and governance policies align with the Foundation’s mission and values
  • emphasising positive engagement over exclusion – working alongside those we invest with to bring about positive change in their business practices.

We also set the ambition of a net zero endowment by 2035, with the interim target of halving emissions by 2028, compared to our 2020 baseline. Within our private investments portfolio, we are increasing our investments in renewable energy, as well as in companies involved in the transition to lower carbon energy systems.

To influence more sustainable business practices, we have been using our position as an investor to engage with the funds and companies we invest in, working with ShareAction and the Charities Responsible Investment Network (CRIN). For example, this year we co-signed the ShareAction global banking initiative which targeted 65 of the world's largest banks, calling on them to strengthen their climate and biodiversity commitments, as well as the CRIN declaration to the investment management industry calling for clear environmental expectations that investors and others can use to determine good practice.

Raising awareness, communicating our goals, and sharing learning with our peers

In parallel to improving the sustainability of our operations and our endowment, we have spent time raising awareness within the Foundation about climate change, environmental breakdown and the link with health and wellbeing. We’ve held events and activities – including film screenings, lunchtime seminars with guest speakers and coffee break sessions to discuss different aspects of sustainability.

We published our commitment to sustainability on our website, so that our audiences know that we take the subject seriously and that we are acting to improve our sustainability. And we’ve shared learning with other organisations, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation, to support our peers as well as learn from them.

Looking ahead

While we have taken some steps towards improving our sustainability, we know there is more work to be done, as COP26 reminds us all of the need to go further, faster.

Looking ahead, we will be implementing a long-term plan for how we operate, which will seek to reduce our environmental impact and include a net zero target for the whole organisation, covering not only our investments, but other aspects of our organisation such as our facilities, IT, hybrid working and events. We will continue to build a more detailed picture of our carbon footprint to give a better sense of where our biggest opportunities lie for reduction.

Thinking about the role we can play as a provider of research and as a funder, we will be considering sustainability in the Foundation's strategy refresh taking place next year, to see what we might be able to contribute on issues such as net zero health care, and the impact of climate change and environmental breakdown on health and wellbeing.  

And finally, we have a series of events and publications to coincide with COP 26, which will include a podcast, webinar, a report on public perceptions of climate change, and an article showcasing the work we have funded that has an environmental focus. In addition, next year our Shaping Health Futures team will be working on a project to imagine what health care could look like in a net zero world. Watch this space.

Tom Hardie (@tlhardie1) is chair of the Environmental Sustainability Advisory Group and an Improvement Fellow at the Health Foundation.

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