Do you want to know about sustainability?

Published on 13 August 2021, by Richard Bridgen

Knowledge for Healthcare, Sustainability

This post explains more about sustainability in the NHS and will ask about how you’re contributing.

Do you want to know about sustainability? Do you want to make your service, and help your Trust become more sustainable?

You’ll have heard about environmental sustainability.  Health and care is responsible for about 4-5% of the nation’s carbon footprint. The NHS has committed to delivering net zero emissions as part of its Greener NHS strategy.1

For emissions the NHS can control, the aim is to get to net zero by 2040.  For those emissions it can influence, it’s 2045.

Much of this will be achieved through energy efficiency, by reducing travel, decarbonising the supply chain and removing waste, for example by reducing single-use plastics.

At FutureLearn, ‘the term sustainability is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. However, it actually refers to four distinct areas’ 2:

  • Human

This is about maintaining human capital in society.  It’s about health and education, ensuring people have the right knowledge and skills to maintain health and economic wellbeing for all.  This could include our work with the literacies: health literacy; digital; information

  • Social

This focuses on improving social equality.  It includes ‘concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity, honesty and relationships amongst people’

  • Economic

This is about improving the standard of living. In the context of business, it refers to the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over time.  In the NHS context this refers to maintaining financial stability.

  • Environmental

About improving our impact on the environment.

To this I’d add two further types: digital sustainability 3 and the sustainability of spread and adoption 4.  NHS Digital defines digital collaboration as the greater use of online services, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Sustaining spread and adoption is about making sure innovations and changes stick in an organisation and are adopted by others.  It’s about ‘holding the gains’ and ‘evolving as required.’

Improving working practices to contribute to a low-carbon society has been added to the Knowledge for Healthcare strategy as a guiding principle.

‘Knowledge specialists have a dual role in contributing to the sustainability agenda, within the knowledge service itself and by providing the evidence to underpin policy, commissioning, operational practice and training.’

Some examples from KLS include, buying eco-friendly materials, developing services which are digital b default, working in partnership to reduce duplication and building sustainability into strategies and policy.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been contributing to the NHS net zero goals by working from home, reducing travel to and from work, and by holding meetings virtually.  We have seen an increasing emphasis on digital resources and improving the knowledge and skills of the workforce.

Thinking about the different types of sustainability, what are you doing about sustainability locally?  We’d love to hear about how you’re contributing or any ideas you may have to make KLS even more sustainable. 

If you’re involved and interested in sustainability, we’d like to form a community of practice to share ideas and inspire change.

In either case contact [email protected].

References and more information:

  1. NHS England. Delivering a net zero NHS [Internet]. NHS England [cited 2021 Aug 11]. Available from:
  2. The four pillars of sustainability [Internet]. RMIT University. 2017 [cited 2021 Aug 11]. Available from:
  3. NHS Digital. Digital sustainability [Internet]. NHS Digital 2020. [cited 2021 Aug 11]. Available from:
  4. NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement. Improvement Leaders’ Guide: Sustainability and its relationship with spread and adoption, ILG 7905 [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2021 Aug 11]. Available from:
  5. Health Education England.  Knowledge for Healthcare: a strategic framework for NHS Knowledge and Library Services in England 2021-2026 [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Aug 11]. Available from:

See also:

Greener NHS

Bevan Foundation


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