UW Health proves sustainability efforts can live long, healthy lives

During a sustainable business workshop last month hosted by CUNA Mutual Group, this question was posed: “If and when you leave a company, how do you ensure that the sustainability initiatives you started there continue on?”

Fielding the question was Dave Boyer, CEO and co-owner of MCD, Inc. Dave is a real champion of sustainable business, having institutionalized sweeping sustainability practices during his tenures at two different manufacturing companies in Wisconsin. Without missing a beat, he offered this suggestion: Make it a guiding principle of your organization.

“When you write sustainability into your company’s core values or mission statement, for someone to remove it later takes a good deal of effort and a good reason,” Dave said. 

I wholeheartedly agree with Dave. Writing sustainability into your organization’s mission, vision, and core values can be an effective way to entrench it in all corners of your business. Although it may look like a bit of grandstanding without real results in terms of CO2 or cost savings, it can be like pressing your palm into wet cement on the sidewalk. Once it dries, it’s there to stay, visible to everyone who passes by.

What’s more, naming sustainability in your mission statement can give you a license to drive forward other initiatives, with fewer internal roadblocks along the way. 

Take, for instance, UW Health. 

Wisconsin’s largest health care organization, UW Health represents the academic health care entities of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including the UW Medical Foundation, UW Hospital and Clinics, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and more. The more than 10,000 health care providers, faculty, staff, and students who make up UW Health all share one common mission.

One of those 10,000 employees is Shannon Bunsen, a young, mid-level staffer in the plant engineering department and the MPower Champions “Green Team” leader. At last year’s Badger Bioneers conference, Shannon connected the dots between public health and sustainability. She made a commitment to cultivate a culture of sustainability at UW Health. Her first step was to write sustainability into UW Health’s mission statement.

“At that time, we had a heightened focus on supporting wellness in our community, not just treating the sick,” Shannon said. “I realized that if UW Health acted as a good environmental steward, we could help keep patients out of the hospital and create a healthier community.”

UW Health had already set into motion a number of sustainability-related projects and initiatives. By writing sustainability into the mission statement, Shannon argued, UW Health would then begin to make decisions through a lens of sustainability, incorporating it into the strategic plan, new employee orientation, patient and stakeholder communications, and more.

With this argument, Shannon persuaded her supervisor, John Mulcahey, that it would be a good idea to add sustainability to the mission statement of UW Health. He agreed and discussed it with his supervisor, who put Shannon’s email in front of the president and CEO, who quickly responded, “I agree.” 



Today, sustainability is a cornerstone of UW Health’s operations and practices. Through its Green STEPS initiative, UW Health takes action on energy efficiency, waste and water reduction, green cleaning, sustainable food choices, and more. UW Health will have 10 LEED-certified buildings by 2014 and currently has 38 pesticide-free sites. In addition, the organization has doubled its recycled material in five years and has made many conversions to reusable and biodegradable materials, from the patient’s bed to the cafeteria. (To learn more about UW Health’s Green STEPS efforts, click here.)

Writing sustainability into UW Health’s mission statement wasn’t exactly a magic wand that brought these initiatives to life — they each required a lot of strategic planning, dedication, communication, and effort. Still, by incorporating sustainability into the mission, UW Health has put a stake in the ground with a long-term commitment to sustainability — one that will help to position the organization as a national model of sustainability in the health care sector. Within UW Health, it means that Shannon can now point to the mission statement to help justify new projects and initiatives, knowing that even if she exits the organization someday, her efforts won’t.

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