Pop culture: Why hospitals should emulate Coca-Cola in sustainability reporting

Coke, and much of corporate America, surpasses healthcare in measuring and disclosing environmental impacts.

Coca-Cola, and major corporations, put healthcare organizations to shame in one key area.

They measure and report on their environmental impacts.

More than 90% of the companies in the S&P 500 publish annual sustainability reports. Many private and nongovernmental organizations also engage in similar reporting.

Most healthcare organizations do not do robust sustainability reporting, researchers say.

A recent analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst, makes the case that hospitals and healthcare organizations need to be measuring their environmental impact and focus on reducing waste and pollutants.

Hospitals are dedicated to saving and improving lives, but most are ignoring the environmental damage they are doing, said Jodi Sherman, an associate professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology at Yale University and a co-author of the study.

“This is also a patient safety issue. We are causing harm in how we deliver healthcare,” Sherman said.

Coca-Cola may be famous for its soda and other sugary products, but the company has reported on its environmental impacts and progress for years. In 2020, the company outlined how it's reducing emissions and plastic waste.

“The Coca-Cola Company does something that almost no U.S. hospital or health care system does — it systematically measures, manages, mitigates, and regularly publicly discloses verified data on the negative environmental and societal consequences of its business operations,” the authors wrote.

Even with many corporations reporting on sustainability, it’s largely voluntary. However, businesses, and healthcare organizations, could see external forces requiring reporting of emissions and other impacts.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is considering environmental, social and governing reporting requirements, the authors note. The SEC could also consider regulations requiring companies to include data on areas such as workplace safety and efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has indicated it could produce regulations requiring healthcare organizations to reduce emissions, the authors note.

The European Union’s financial disclosure rules compel companies to report on sustainability. If such a model were followed here, businesses would have to report on their production of greenhouse gases, air and water pollutants, and climate risks that could impact their organizations.

Some researchers have proposed tying Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to sustainability efforts.

Nonprofit hospitals must outline their community benefits with the Internal Revenue Service. By doing more robust environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting, healthcare systems would find costs savings, improve the safety of patients and staff, and build a stronger reputation and connection in their communities, the authors suggest.

Healthcare organizations that begin measuring and reporting sustainability efforts could expect to see it pay off ethically and financially, the authors state. Much of corporate America is measuring their environmental impact because there are tangible benefits, including an improved bottom line.

“We know there are a lot of business opportunities, fiscal opportunities, for doing the right thing,” Sherman said. “That said, sometimes doing the right thing for our patients costs money.”

If hospitals want to get serious about reporting their environmental impacts, there are plenty of models to emulate if they want to get started, said Todd Cort, a lecturer at Yale University’s School of Management and a co-author of the analysis.

“There’s no wheel reinvention to be done here,” Cort said. “There’s standards, frameworks, and guidelines to anyone who wants to start this journey.”

There are a few healthcare systems that are taking steps to be more responsible with their environmental impact.

In 2020, Kaiser Permanente became the first U.S. health system to reach carbon neutrality, the analysis noted. The system used increased energy efficiency and purchased carbon offsets to eliminate its carbon footprint.

Some hospitals are participating in voluntary programs to reduce emissions. A few larger health systems are doing corporate social responsibility reporting. The Cleveland Clinic and Dignity Health, now part of CommonSpirit Health, have released “quantitative information about corporate efforts to meet environmental and social goals,” the analysis noted.

To make a real difference, hospital leaders must make clear this is a priority throughout the organization. Some hospitals have sustainability managers or committees, but some rely on teams of volunteers aiming to be greener.

“It can’t be left to a bunch of volunteers,” Sherman said. “The information must be fed into executive leadership.”

The researchers said they hope the analysis prompts healthcare leaders to consider the merits of sustainability reporting and reducing their environmental impact.

“Doing no harm is a core value and there’s a business case to be made,” Sherman said.

Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, Yale University, the University of Texas, and the World Bank produced the analysis.

If you’re interested in learning more, Yale is hosting a free "Care Without Carbon Symposium" on Friday, March 18. Go here for more details.