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Sustainability as a Strategy

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

How Embracing Sustainability Can Improve The Bottom Line, Employee Retention, and Customer Satisfaction

At NRC Health's Annual Symposium in Seattle, Liz Sweeney of Nutshell Associates made the case for healthcare systems to embrace sustainability as a strategy to enhance customer satisfaction, gain brand loyalty, and improve employee retention. Liz began her session by presenting survey data that shows increasingly, consumers are willing to pay more for products they view as sustainable across the entire value chain. Consumers are thinking in new ways about the companies they do business with, forming views of companies' behaviors and practices with respect to their employees, suppliers, communities, and the environment. Additionally, lenders, rating agencies and investors are focused on nonfinancial factors in their analysis, often framing those factors as "environmental, social, and governance (ESG)". The term "sustainability" is increasingly used to refer to environmental, social, and governance factors as a whole, without having to classify everything in three buckets, and is thus a more intuitive and consumer-friendly terminology. Regardless of the nomenclature, focusing on sustainability is a great way for healthcare systems to enhance brand awareness, consumer engagement, recruitment and retention, and investor relations.

The for-profit sector has already recognized the benefits of sustainability strategies. An astounding 92% of S&P500 companies published a sustainability or corporate responsibility report in 2020, and about 70% of them report benefits such as increased customer retention and recruitment, positive media and brand awareness, higher employee morale, and improved cost savings.

If all this sounds complicated, it's not. "The good news", Liz told the audience, "is that you already have a sustainability strategy". Nonprofit healthcare systems already embody many of the elements of sustainable companies, including a mission to improve community health, reinvesting earnings in the community instead of distributing to shareholders, and a culture of resource stewardship. Nonprofits focus on maximizing stakeholder benefit rather than enterprise value. Liz pointed out that this is by definition a sustainable business practice. Most healthcare systems are already doing many of the things that consumers expect from a sustainable business, but they don't think about all their community activities as being part of a sustainability strategy, and they don't generally pull it all together under one umbrella or tout their achievements in a sustainability report. Thus, they don't get the full business benefits of their sustainability initiatives.

Liz advised healthcare systems to start simple by creating an inventory of all the great things they are already doing which reflect their values of resource stewardship, good governance, and community benefit. Examples may be free vaccination clinics, energy saving initiatives, medical waste reduction programs, strong governance policies, public school engagement, EDI initiatives (equity, inclusion, and diversity), and community partnerships. For more examples and inspiration, there are many great sustainability reports published by for-profit and nonprofit healthcare companies. Once the inventory of sustainability initiatives is created, pull them together into an annual public-facing sustainability report. By leveraging the sustainability factors inherent in nonprofit organizational structure, and collecting existing initiatives under one sustainability umbrella, then publishing the results, healthcare systems can inexpensively gain benefits of brand awareness, consumer loyalty, employee satisfaction, improved investor relations, and maybe even a better bottom line!

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