Sustainability success

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Dr Jeremy Watson veterinarian

Dr Jeremy Watson’s vet clinic has received accreditation as Australia’s first certified carbon neutral veterinary practice. He’s now on a quest to lead other vets down the same path. By John Burfitt

Rebuilding his veterinary practice just over a decade ago gave Dr Jeremy Watson the opportunity to start over and determine a range of ways to do business better—in particular, to operate his business more sustainably.

The more he explored this, the more demands Dr Watson realised he was placing on the Brimbank Vet Clinic he was building in the outer Melbourne suburb of Sydenham. 

His agenda was to minimise his clinic’s impact on the environment, both in terms of its building design and its day-to-day operations.

“As we worked on the design, we were led by what you can achieve with a building to make a huge difference on the environment,” he says. “In addition, we wanted to create a place that the team wanted to work in, and clients wanted to visit.”

What he ended up creating at Brimbank when it opened its doors in 2011, and how it has evolved since, far exceeded Dr Watson’s original plans. 

Today Brimbank Vet Clinic is recognised as a leader of effective sustainability and with such a low carbon footprint that in 2021, it became Australia’s first certified carbon neutral veterinary practice. 

The clinic is such a high achiever across the board in terms of sustainable process that it has Australian Government Climate Active certification. It is the highest standard of certification and to claim carbon neutral status means Dr Watson’s clinic has had its carbon footprint measured along with the purchase of carbon offsets to neutralise emissions to zero.

Dr Watson has been an active member of Vets for Climate Action (VFCA) since 2019 and is currently working on the organisation’s Climate Care Program. He also recently was one of the authors of the paper ‘The Path to Net Zero carbon emissions for Veterinary Practice’. 

The VFCA Climate Care program and the academic report are being promoted as comprehensive guidelines on how other practices can work towards more sustainable work practices.

“All the political parties in Australia have committed to a policy of net zero emissions by 2050, and so I figured those of us in the veterinary profession need a road map of how we can play our part and what can be done to start getting us there,” Dr Watson says.

“I know some people get overwhelmed by where to start, but it is about understanding why it is important to be addressing climate change, and also about engaging the whole clinical team in the way we approach this, so it makes this just a normal part of practice.”

Among the changes Dr Watson implemented at Brimbank was reorienting the main windows of the practice to face north and incorporating glass internal walls, both to make the most of natural light. Solar panels were also installed to provide enough power to meet the electricity needs of the practice and charge two electric cars. Dr Watson estimates the practice has generated $150,000 of free electricity over the lifetime of the rooftop solar system.

I know some people get overwhelmed by where to start, but it is about understanding why it is important to be addressing climate change, and also about engaging the whole clinical team in the way we approach this, so it makes this just a normal part of practice.

Dr Jeremy Watson, owner, Brimbank Vet Clinic

Gas appliances were replaced by electric appliances and fluorescent lighting replaced by LED lighting. 

As a result of changing plumbing fixtures, daily water usage within the practice was more than halved to 370 litres per day. Heat exchange ventilators were also installed to continuously bring fresh air into the building, which is cooled in summer and warmed in winter, without losing energy.

In addition, synthetic bedding in the kennel room has been replaced by a natural fibre alternative to avoid microfibre plastic pollution.

“There has been a lot of government subsidies that have helped cover this, so we made the most of them. When we did change appliances, the savings over time paid for the changes and helped make us far more financially viable,” Dr Watson explains. “In so many ways, this is a no-brainer.”

Next on the agenda is installation of batteries to store solar generated power, as well as more effective ways to dispose of surgical waste. “We are always looking at new options, so I hope we can find other solutions soon.”

Stefany Goldring, CEO of VFCA, says there has been a shift within the profession in attitudes regarding climate change and more sustainable policies. 

“VFCA wants to normalise this move towards considering the planet as an intrinsic part of the bottom line by making information readily available and easily actionable for busy vet teams,” she says. “Our recommendations around adopting sustainable practices in vet practices aren’t just about shifting values and engagement but making it very user friendly.”

Statistics from a VFCA survey claim 86 per cent of practitioners want to implement carbon reduction strategies within their practices but 70 per cent do not know where to start.

The VFCA launched the Climate Care Program, an interactive digital toolkit through their website. A pilot program of 21 practices saw a 50 per cent reduction in overall emissions in a 12-month period, resulting in reduced operating costs and creating effective recruitment and retention incentives.

“These are very important factors to consider in an industry that is under pressure due to a shortage of vets, and where customers are increasingly prioritising goods and services.”

Dr Watson agrees sustainability has become a bigger issue for his client base.

“In our most recent customer survey about the importance of our carbon neutral status, 75 per cent of respondents gave it a five-star priority and 95 per cent a four-star priority,” he says. “There was also a study from Colorado State University that concluded clients are now willing to pay more for a better service from a clinic that works with sustainable practices. All of this has changed in recent times, and we need to keep moving this forward.”

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