Developing environmentally friendly products is key to advancing sustainability, especially in healthcare, an energy-intensive industry that accounts for nearly 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to one estimate. But making safe and effective green products can be challenging given that many stages in a product’s life cycle – from when materials are gathered to when the finished product is thrown away – can impact quality and health, from both clinical and environmental standpoints.
Two industry leaders–Medline and Greenhealth Exchange (GX), a group purchasing consortium for health systems committed to sustainability –have found a unique way to take on this challenge: banding together product makers with product users. Working alongside Medline manufacturing, product development and supply chain experts will be supply chain and value analysis experts from five major health systems scattered across the nation. This integrated approach, they hope, will hasten sustainable development more so than the siloed endeavors of the past.
The Medline Newsroom sat down with Francesca Olivier, Medline’s Senior Director of Innovation and Corporate Responsibility, and Nancy Anderson, GX’s Vice President of Contracting, to find out why this collaboration is so needed and what value it offers.
What makes this partnership unique?
Nancy: This partnership goes deeper than the traditional product development process. In the traditional product development process, the supplier maybe asks a few questions or gets some feedback from somewhere, then goes back into their development program, does a whole bunch of research, develops the product, has the product and then figures out where it fits in the market.
What we’re doing here is involving the users more integrally in every step of the process, from the very first step of defining the need, to testing the product and making sure that it’s useful from a clinical standpoint, and all the steps in between. It’s the integration of our two organizations – the expertise that we bring from a clinical and sustainability standpoint on the hospital and healthcare side combined with expertise that Medline has in both sustainability and in product development – that makes for a really powerful combination.
Why does a partnership with Medline in particular make sense?
Francesca: Medline brings unique strengths to the partnership just due to the way we’re structured. As a family owned company, we’re very nimble, we can be quick to change. We’re also very vertically integrated, so we own and have control over so much of our supply chain and manufacturing, and are able to work closely with factories to escalate the commercialization process. This type of structure enables us to address the full range of operational challenges that impact the performance of healthcare systems, from managing time and space to deepening connections between patients; our full range of capabilities are what makes us an ideal partner.
Nancy: From a GX perspective, those capabilities are all really important elements. There is value in Medline’s willingness to enter into this work with us, Medline’s commitment to sustainability and interest in doing things for healthcare that help us meet our sustainability goals.
What is your approach to developing greener products?
Nancy: Together we’re going to look at products from a more holistic stand point, examining multiple attributes so that we don’t develop products that may be sustainable in one component but potentially harmful in others. For example, we don’t want to have a product that is recyclable but then also has chemicals of concern.
Francesca: Through this cross-sector partnership we can also build consensus around what is considered environmentally friendly. For a consumer, green claims today can be really confusing. Building consensus through this partnership can provide more clarity for the healthcare industry, and help to separate the claims that have the most impact from the claims that maybe are not quite as impactful.
Why is evaluating products holistically important to developing sustainable products?
Nancy: Because every step of a product’s life cycle can impact the environment and/or the health of people. It is critical to look at the product from various perspectives to ensure all components are safe and sustainable instead of just one feature such as recyclability. If we were to only look at one feature, we could end up developing a product that’s green in one area but potentially harmful in another because it creates excessive waste that end up in landfills and creates more problems for the future.
We want to look at the life cycle and environmental impacts both upstream and downstream to ensure that the “green” component is optimized and sustained throughout the manufacture, use and disposal of the product.
Francesca: It gets back to the point about not relying on individual attributes. There’s a much bigger story to be told when it comes to the impact a product can have, and a lot of times that’s referred to as external costs or the true cost of a product, which considers not just the economic costs but also the environmental costs.
Learn more about Medline’s efforts to make healthcare more sustainable.