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Interview: Ellie West of Davies Veterinary Specialists

TVE: How did you first get involved with Investors in the Environment?

EW: We had started a Green Group, and despite having a very motivated and enthusiastic team, and support from our leadership team, had found it challenging to focus and create strategy that would have meaningful impact. I looked around at what other sectors did, in particular medical groups, and I came across an inspiring report written by Clare Topping, the Green Ninja from NHS Northampton General Hospital. Clare is a stalwart of medical sustainability, and we are still in contact. NGH are Green level members of the Investors in the Environment scheme – I gave April from iiE a phone call, and the rest is history.

TVE: What was it that attracted you to their vision for creating sustainable businesses?

EW: What I liked about iiE is that they offered a framework and recognition for your efforts, whatever stage of the journey you are on. They were also curious about our challenges, and have been supportive at every stage. Their national lead, April Sotomayor, lectured at early CPD events that we ran and is now involved with VetSustain and has lectured for WebinarVet. April has given freely of her own time and expertise in supporting many sections of the veterinary community. That generosity of spirit that we find in April and iiE is lovely to work alongside.

TVE: How has it helped you to establish and meet green targets? In other words, what sort of practical advice have you received and been able to implement?

EW: Many of the sustainability challenges that we face are not unique to the veterinary sector. Transport, energy, domestic waste, and engaging people are all challenges which are key to making a difference, and iiE have resources such as travel surveys, access to specialists within their members, and online resources on all of these issues and more. Our tree planting collaboration with Forest Carbon was based on iiE’s recommendation of their programme. However, iiE has also provided support on how to approach our environmental impacts; to assist with where to spend our time, where other sectors have found solutions, and assisted us with networking within the sustainability community. On a personal note, it was April who suggested that it was probably time for me to look at gaining some professional expertise in sustainability, which is what prompted me to go for my Associate level IEMA accreditation.

TVE: What is involved in the iiE accreditation scheme?

EW: iiE is a framework for embedding environmental management schemes into small and medium-sized enterprises. On paper, it is a supported environmental audit which is more achievable than other international accreditations; however, at heart, the iIE scheme is designed to help businesses on their sustainability journeys. The process is outlined in their WebinarVet recording, but the most useful part for me (and given I like data) was the resource sheet, and the audit pack, which together create a narrative of your efforts, but also a hard look at where your biggest carbon impacts are.

TVE: Has this involvement resulted in any changes to working practices?

EW: Certainly; for us, announcing to the team that we had joined and then declaring our Silver Level accreditation in the press was the sign of commitment that empowered our teams to look more closely at what they were doing and realise the challenges and opportunities that were in front of us. It meant anyone could (and was expected to) speak up on sustainability issues. We overhauled a number of practices, including waste management, and saw spontaneous changes in wide areas from facilities, to procurement, to patient management. We handle different products in our workspaces; we hear different conversations when decisions are being made; we see sustainable anaesthesia in action among our teams. Every positive change brings a measure of pride and pleasure to our team.

TVE: What do you see as the principal benefits to the practice and to the working environment?

EW: I see a critical and constructive attitude towards environmental impacts, and a wider awareness of responsibility among our team. The best working solutions come from our teams. Our Associates are empowered to ask the questions, knowing that we now have a group of industry-leading sustainability specialists within the team. If we don’t know the answer, we can find someone who does!

TVE: Are you seeing improvements in energy usage? And in other areas of the practice, such as waste disposal?

EW: Yes, and this would be expected (alongside the financial savings). The challenge is in understanding what the available alternatives are, and you have to push reasonably hard for them. The most fascinating change (for me as an anaesthetist) was the anaesthetic gas consumption reductions. We already used capnography for every anaesthetised patient, supported by our team of seven anaesthetists, and a broad lower flow anaesthesia policy in place, so we had a fair expectation of efficiency, but these reductions came after a national isoflurane shortage in January 2019 which resulted in further streamlining of the process which persisted for the following year. I didn’t see that coming!

TVE: Has it resulted in financial savings? Or what have been the financial benefits?

EW: Yes – any resource reduction will save money. However, the broader financial savings in staff satisfaction in our sustainability efforts, recruitment of excellent Associates who share our values, enhanced communication to referring vets, clients and our wider community, easily offsets any costs. Our oxygen conservation resources, produced in spring 2020 in response to concerns regarding oxygen supplies during COVID, are an excellent example of being able to provide and support others to provide resilient quality of care. There are occasionally “more expensive” sustainability options; these costs can usually be offset by other savings, and reframed to show the other positive impacts of the change. For instance, surgical tins may be more expensive than disposable plastic packaging and may therefore take many years for direct return on investment. However, once you factor in things like reduced surgical time (in opening kit), easier packaging, more autoclave capacity, less equipment “wastage” due to dropping, you can see financial returns far quicker.

TVE: Has it been easy to get everyone in the practice on board with the aims?

EW: The team at Davies have embraced sustainability, many going the extra mile like our ophthalmology team who recycle coffee pods at work, or our procurement officer who digs through brochures to find the latest green product to try. Sustainability is about our planet and its people – most initiatives have co-benefits that our Associates can see a benefit from. Even the fiercest critic of any particular initiative can be your friend; if it isn’t obvious to a cynic why something should be done, then either it hasn’t been communicated well enough or the scheme needs refining to make it better. The awards we have won are lovely, but the best reward is seeing the pleasure of our teams in finding a new and better way to work.

TVE: Is the entire Linnaeus group now on board?

EW: The Linnaeus executive has committed to ambitious sustainability targets and has strategic plans in place to ensure that meaningful change occurs. In addition to the Support Office, we have 22 brands joined as members with Investors in the Environment, with Davies and NDSR already winning their Green and Silver level accreditations respectively. We have active sustainability forums and campaigns and we are working to share best practice across the sector by lecturing veterinary students and working with industry groups.

TVE: Would you recommend that other practices get involved and how should they go about it?

EW: Practices have had so much to deal with in the last 12 months. The transformative change that environmentalists demanded has happened, but not in a way that I would have wished for. However, it is now our responsibility, for our generation and the next, to move forward in a better and more resilient way, and the principles of sustainability will help with this. As such, I think that they will be considered more as “best practice” and then “normal practice” in the future. The medical field is already seeing this.

TVE: iiE is now partnering with Vet Sustain. What impact do you think this will have?

EW: This partnership will fast-track many of the non-healthcare-specific solutions in the veterinary sector, and give us access to resources and information to spread best practice. I look forward to continuing to collaborate with both.

• This interview was conducted as part of The Veterinary Edge’s feature on Davies Veterinary Specialists published in the March 2021 issue.

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