It’s the ecology, stupid!

As I write this, the first of my regular columns on sustainability in the social care sector, world leaders (well, most of them…) are convening at Sharm el-Sheikh for the COP27 meeting on climate change.  United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres bluntly warned delegates that “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator” and that the world was in the “fight of our lives and we are losing”.

  • Be in no doubt that we in the social care sector are in that same fight.  Let’s look at just three sustainability challenges facing the sector:
  • Climate change.  Increasing pressures driving global warming are increasing costs of key elements of social care, notably rising energy and fuel costs.  The sector is characterised by an ageing property stock and high vehicle dependence.  Historic under-investment and old-fashioned regulators have led to a heavily paper-based system with little investment in technological innovation.
  • Population growth. Global population growth is placing an increasing strain on health and social care demand.  In the UK, this is exacerbated by an ageing population which is significantly increasing demand for social care services, for elderly care but particularly for specialist care.  The growing number of individuals with increasingly complex care needs is heightening the need for greater and more sophisticated provision.
  • Growing inequalities.  Increasing demand for social care is outstripping the public sector’s capacity to provide adequate funding through current funding mechanisms, leading to unmet need and individuals having to self-fund ever-increasing elements for their care with a disproportionate impact on the poorest.  ‘Postcode lottery’ inequalities of social care provision and increasingly inappropriate distinctions between the availability of public support for different health conditions are fuelling new inequalities. 

The recent report on ESG from Barclays (Time to act: Healthcare at a turning point on ESG commented – diplomatically! – that “the response of health and social care to these imperatives has been muted,

at best.”  We as a sector must join the fight for our planet’s future. 

As a sector, we face enormous challenges.  The economic situation is further squeezing commissioners’ budgets; inflation is driving up core costs; recruitment and retention are at crisis levels; regulators’ expectations are, rightly, increasing; the media is quick to jump on actual or perceived shortcomings; and, there are increasing calls to curb private operators’ profits and, indeed, to nationalise the sector.

Some might be tempted, given these pressures, to pull back on investment in sustainability initiatives.  This would be a huge mistake – both morally and commercially. 

Increased energy and fuel costs are not going away.  The cost-benefit analysis of reducing our energy and fuel usage is clear, with recouping of initial investment becoming ever-shorter.  We must invest in improving our properties’ energy efficiency, boost the use of renewables, and transition quickly to low-carbon vehicle fleets. 

Evidence shows clearly that employees want to work for organisations with strong sustainability credentials, are more loyal and more productive.  A vital component of our collective approach to tackling the sector’s recruitment and retention crisis must be to support our employees to contribute to their communities and playing their part in our sustainability agenda.  

We can also boost the life chances of those at the margins of society providing them with meaningful jobs.  We need to work with organisations with access to such communities to create exciting new employment pathways, opening up whole new pools of untapped talent, recognising that values not qualifications are more important for care roles.

This is not a choice between economy and ecology.  Addressing the challenges of sustainability can reduce costs and accelerate transition to carbon net zero.  However strong the short-term headwinds, they must not deflect us from long-term sustainable growth.

First published in Caring Times