Climate change, sustainability and the environment – The NHS, large corporations and workplace canteens


People can no longer simply graduate, get a job, work 40 years and retire with an excellent pension. That dream has passed. For anyone under 40 today, we are used to the idea of the need to change jobs and the demand to be flexible and creative to try and find ways to make ends meet. In fact, recent research has shown the average worker now changes jobs approx. 12 times in a lifetime.

The Huffington post did a great little infographic piece a few years ago illustrating how we divide our time between different activities; these can incidentally be useful to use with patients when trying to set goals and plan activities based on values and time.

The point being, we spend a lot of time at work. It is common to think about ’30-40 years’ of employment as the point where we reach retirement age, but it is useful to point out that when calculated accurately, we actually spend on average 14.5 years of our lives working, when considering a 37.5 hr week. The amount of time estimated to be spent working during a typical 50 year period of employment is approximately 24% (there’s some food for thought).

Still, we remain employed for at least a 30-year period and let’s be honest, most of our generation will be working well into our 70’s unless there are drastic changes, for example in the form of automation and other large scale innovations that influence how jobs are carried out and how society as a whole is run, but that is a discussion for a different day.

On that note, an interesting proposal has been making the rounds lately. With the dramatic effects of global climate change becoming even more visible to us all, sustainability and climate / environmentally friendly choices may soon no longer be ‘choices’, but rather the only options we have.

In some fields we will likely have to accept changes, for example with regards to meat consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report points out that it is important to do something about methane, and animal husbandry accounts for the largest emissions. As health authorities are also recommending a reduction in the consumption of red meat, we may be required to turn meat consumption back to what was normal in the 1950’s or 60’s. If canteens allow people to eat less meat whilst still providing well tasting and interesting options, it could influence people to live more environmentally friendly, whilst also improving health outcomes in the population.

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If canteens allow people to eat less meat whilst still providing well tasting and interesting options, it could influence people to live more environmentally friendly, whilst also improving health outcomes in the population.

 

A story came out recently of how Berlin Universities are cutting meat from their canteen menu, their new menu will contain approx. 4% of meat and fish, whereas the remaining options will be centred around meals made of seasonally fresh, locally sourced main ingredients – as these foods have a low Co2 footprint. However, there is an argument to be made that whilst simply cutting out meat could have health benefits, it could have an insufficient and potentially worse climate impact if the option meat is replaced with is not sourced from sustainable environmentally friendly vendors. For example, there is no point replacing a local UK produced meat source in a shepherd’s pie that has travelled via train and car to the canteen / local provider from the farm, with peppers and avocados that have travelled 1000’s of miles in a shipping container overseas which has a far higher and more significant CO2 emissions rate.

This is known as ‘food miles’ and is a discussion point in the catering industry that has gained more traction as the climate issue has become more pressing, there are even calculators available online to track how many food miles your food has travelled before reaching your plate. For instance, if you are in the UK and are eating an avocado normally sourced from Mexico / Central America, it would have travelled 5551 miles (8931km) before reaching London.

 

 

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a sustainable diet should provide us with enough healthy and safe food, whilst ensuring that what we choose to eat does not spoil the globe either today or for the future. But sustainable food also has to fit into different cultures and be affordable to everyone who uses it.

What exactly constitutes sustainable eating is also a controversial issue. A recent report by a Scandinavian university explained how sustainable food production covers more than greenhouse gases. They discovered that as of today, foods cannot be labelled correctly because there are no good methods for measuring sustainability locally. What is considered sustainable food production, will depend on each country’s individual nature-based production methods.

Reuters wrote an article as far back as 2016 introducing the idea of bringing sustainability into workplace canteens, and the ‘Catering Mark’ – a certification that can be awarded to businesses for good sustainable food solutions, has become an increasingly desired staple of the catering industry. A recent review by The NHS supply chain does also mention sustainability, but predominantly in relation to food waste minimisation. As the worlds largest public sector employer, the NHS have also set a highly ambitious goal of becoming the worlds first carbon net zero national health system by 2040.

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As the worlds largest public sector employer, the NHS have also set a highly ambitious goal of becoming the worlds first carbon net zero national health system by 2040.

 

When discussing sustainable, climate and environmentally friendly solutions it can often be felt like a struggle between how much responsibility and change we demand large corporations take upon themselves as the largest contributors to climate change, (this article is over 4 years old, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions..) and how much change we are prepared to make in our own day to day lives. Or to put it in other terms, are we prepared to reduce our quality of life, to stop doing the things we like to do and start doing other things that require more time, energy and labour in order to ‘do our bit’ for the climate, when 71% of emissions are being produced by only a handful of large corporations. At first glance, it is offensive to make us as consumers feel responsible for these changes, and to demand that we make significant changes to our lives compared to them making big changes to their business models seems like a nonstarter.

However, it is a difficult question – for the longer we wait for these large companies to change, the closer we are to the deadlines set out in the recent IPCC report. We can likely influence their behaviour to some degree, through the basic supply and demand process. If we no longer purchase, invest in or publicly support companies that do not have sustainable and environmentally business models, they will eventually have to change. The question is, is there enough time to influence this change?

The tobacco industry can be used as an example here. Whilst they aren’t exactly thriving; due to significant restrictions and regulations in addition to changes in supply, demand and smoking culture, they have started making a move from traditional cigarettes to vaping, cannabis and other non-tobacco based nicotine services. Whilst more research is needed to determine if this change is beneficial to the climate, it is at least at the moment considered beneficial to public health in the form of reduced lung cancer and respiratory disease rates that are well connected with cigarettes.

 

 

What we do know, is that most people in the world are calling for wide-ranging action. A recent report by the United Nations Development programme, processed by the University of Oxford, was published in January 2021. It was the world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change. Covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, the survey included over half a million people under the age of 18, a key constituency on climate change that is typically unable to vote (yet) in regular elections.

In the survey, respondents were asked if climate change was a global emergency and whether they supported eighteen key climate policies across six action areas: economy, energy, transport, food & farms, nature and protecting people. 

Results show that people often want broad climate policies beyond the current state of play. For example, in eight of the ten survey countries with the highest emissions from the power sector, majorities backed more renewable energy. In four out of the five countries with the highest emissions from land-use change and enough data on policy preferences, there was majority support for conserving forests and land. Nine out of ten of the countries with the most urbanised populations backed more use of clean electric cars and buses, or bicycles. 

We can therefore reasonably conclude that there is a global demand for change. However, more research is required within individual countries, cultures, areas and socioeconomic groups to determine how to design policies that will produce a significant impact on meeting large, global, climate goals, - but also relatively ‘small’ local changes, such as what foods we can purchase in our work canteens.