Collaboration is key – why sustainability matters in the care sector

  • 4th July 2024

Jonathan Freeman, group sustainability director at CareTech Group, provides his monthly take on how social care is adopting a green agenda, asking how a competitive care sector can work together to tackle sustainability challenges

Jonathan Freeman

Rightly or wrongly, the social care sector is a complex patchwork of provision from local authority-run, to charity operators, to private provision.

That was the political decision taken by successive governments and it’s unlikely this mixed economy will change soon, but it does pose some serious questions as to how best to tackle sustainability challenges.

With commissioners driving ever-harder funding decisions, all of us in social care tend to default to competition. How can we deliver more than our competitors? How can we deliver at a lower cost? How can we get people to work for us, not our competitors?

And where does sustainably fit into that mix? In particular, how can we square the baked-in competitive nature of the sector with environmental sustainability, when tackling the climate crisis effectively requires collaborative effort of the like not seen before?

First, we need to work with commissioners – particularly those in local authorities – on our sustainability efforts.

Local authorities are increasingly seeking to drive pressure on their providers to achieve their own sustainability targets. And the Government is under pressure to support local authorities to up their game.

For social care providers with NHS contracts, the sustainability requirements are increasingly stringent with all contracts for £5m requiring the operator to set out a public carbon reduction plan.

A collaborative approach between the sector to drive collective change is essential.

Each commissioner appears to have its own approach and its own asks of providers, creating unnecessarily complicated and wasteful work.

We need to work together, agree our shared priorities, streamline and make consistent the asks of commissioners on providers.

And we need to work together with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to agree on expectations on sustainability that will support the ambitions of local authorities and the social care sector alike.

Second, we need to collaborate with our suppliers, all of whom are, of course, on their own sustainability journey.

To address our indirect emissions, known as Scope 3, we have to work with all of our suppliers to drive down our carbon emissions.

These emissions include, for example, all of the products that operators buy, use and dispose of from suppliers.

As those operators looking at their indirect emissions are discovering, the majority (typically, around 70% but often as high as 85% to 95% of an organisation’s indirect carbon emissions) are driven by these Scope 3 emissions.

It is inevitable that suppliers to the sector will want to address their own carbon emissions as regulators, national and international, up the ante on these issues.

Consumer demand, however, is likely to drive the pace more quickly.

At CareTech, we have found just asking a simple set of questions of our suppliers about their approach has unlocked some mutually beneficial opportunities.

Our stationary providers, for example, have swapped in a new range of recycled and more-environmentally-sensitive products at no extra cost.

Our cleaning products supplier is piloting a range of new products that promise to reduce plastic waste dramatically – again, at no extra cost. And this is just from opening up the conversation with our suppliers.

Third, we need to start working together more as operators. That’s why a group of us came together to establish the Social Care Sustainability Alliance.

The Alliance brings together senior leaders in providers across the social care sector to pool their thinking on sustainability, to work together on the tricky issues with which we are all grappling, and to support more providers to start or accelerate their sustainability journeys.

The Alliance has already published a comprehensive ‘Business case for sustainability in social care’. Other papers on the way include those on retrofitting for older properties, the expectations of investors, a guide to statutory and voluntary requirements on sustainability, and best practice on measuring and reporting on carbon emissions.

By working together in this way, we will all make faster progress on key issues and we will all benefit as a result.

All too often, social care providers look to succeed by competing with other providers. That approach will simply not work when it comes to sustainability.

Sustainability gives us a very-real and pressing opportunity for the sector to come together behind a shared objective to make a deep and lasting change for the better – together. Perhaps, this might even be a lesson that we could apply more generally to tackling the challenges facing the social care sector.

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