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How the Red Cross is Reducing Its Environmental Footprint as Disasters Increase: A Chat with Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Anderson

Every day, American Red Cross volunteers work tirelessly to help families and communities recover as they struggle with the growing frequency and intensity of disasters. Now more than ever, the way we deliver our mission matters not only for those we serve and our workforce — but also for the planet.

Since launching our ambitious climate crisis plan, we’ve been on a mission to shed light on the devastating impacts of increasing disasters and how we’re taking steps to reduce our environmental impact on the planet and build a more sustainable future for generations to follow.

In a recent live chat with Red Cross Chief Sustainability Officer Noel Anderson, he shared why sustainability is important to the Red Cross and revealed the various ways we’re currently reducing our waste, water usage and emissions across the country.

How is the Red Cross reducing its impact on the planet?

“Five billion people, around two-thirds of the world’s population, will face at least one month of water shortage by 2050. The bottom line is that we want to do our part here at the Red Cross to address this crisis to prevent the suffering that we know will result if we don’t all take action. It’s not just about delivering our mission. It’s about delivering our mission in a way that doesn’t contribute to environmental harm. So, what are we doing about it?

“We’re focused on three things: reducing our carbon emissions, reducing our water, and reducing our waste. When we reduce our carbon emissions, right now, we’re increasing our energy efficiencies. And over the next several years, we’re transitioning more than 80% of our facilities across the country to use renewable energy sources. We’re going to reduce our waste by 30% and we’re going to increase our rate of recycling by 50%, and we’re going to lower our water consumption by at least 20%.”

In what ways is the Red Cross looking at reducing its carbon footprint?

“We’re focused in really three major areas for reducing our carbon footprint: our facilities, fleet and supplies.

“When you think about our facilities’ emissions, our focus there is investing in energy efficiency improvements, such as efficient HVAC systems, smart thermostats or other equipment that helps us minimize our energy usage. We conducted sustainability assessments at 28 of our largest facilities and it helped us identify hundreds of efficiency improvements that we can make. One great example is a Biomedical facility in North Carolina, where we installed building automation systems that will help reduce our energy consumption and our carbon emissions by at least 15%.

“Another area is renewable energy. We’ve been able to purchase renewable energy in 169 of our facilities across 16 states already. And in the upcoming fiscal years, our goal is to have over 80% of our facilities using renewable energy.

“To reduce our fleet emissions, we’re focused on replacing gas-powered vehicles with hybrids and embracing electric vehicles (EV). Right now, we’re piloting electric vehicles to identify the opportunities where EVs will work for us in our operations without compromising our ability to deliver our services. We’re also making significant investments to expand our use of hybrid vehicles. Last year, we had 16 hybrid vehicles across our entire fleet, and now, we’re up to 135 hybrid vehicles. Our goal is to add more than that next year.

“The third part of our carbon reduction involves estimating the scale of carbon emissions associated with our supply chain and addressing our waste by doing things like reducing our use of plastic water bottles and replacing Styrofoam feeding supplies with compostable items. Because of those efforts, we’ve already reduced our emissions by 24% since 2019. And that was the baseline year that we started tracking our carbon footprint.”

What are some ways you’re reducing waste as an organization and how have these reduction efforts affected operations and the environment?

“We’re trying to address these efforts in two different directions — one is by focusing on reducing the waste we’re contributing to our planet and the second is by focusing on how we’re managing that waste by responsibly recycling what we can.

“On the supply side of things, we’ve worked with team members in supply management to make our supply chain more sustainable. For example, we tested new packaging for wipes we use in blood collections that could reduce our plastic consumption in that product line by 80%. We’ve also invested in sustainable and compostable feeding supplies for disaster relief operations, so our teams could eliminate Styrofoam and plastic from our feeding distribution efforts.

“We’ve installed water refill stations in our facilities to cut down on single-use plastic water bottles and plastic waste. In addition, we’ve identified sustainable alternatives for some of the most popular products in our Red Cross store that our employees and volunteers use to buy supplies. There are now T-shirts in our Red Cross store made from recycled plastic water bottles!

“On the waste management side, we’ve completed waste audits at several of our facilities and are working on developing a consistent recycling infrastructure that will help us implement proper waste disposal and recycling procedures at Red Cross facilities across the country.”

Water conservation is critical, especially in areas at high risk for water shortages and droughts. What actions is the Red Cross taking to reduce its water usage?

“We knew the absolute least about water when we first began. So, we started by focusing on the top sites that used the most water at the Red Cross based on gallons per square foot. After providing usage data to the teams managing those facilities and calling their attention to the usage and asking for voluntary reductions, we saw a reduction in the past six months of over a million gallons of water compared to the same period the previous year.

“There was a 42% reduction across those eight sites. And in most cases, it was just a matter of checking for leaks or reducing irrigation plants that they had.

“Going forward, we’re focused on implementing xeriscaping solutions in water-stressed areas. Xeriscaping is going to replace landscaping plants with more drought-tolerant species so that we can reduce or eliminate irrigation. We’re also upgrading older fixtures and restrooms and kitchens in favor of low-flow fixtures or aerators that are going to identify the facilities that use the most water to identify and implement interventions such as installing leak detectors or rain sensors. And all those efforts are going to get us to that overall goal of reducing our water consumption by 20% by 2027.

Learn more

If you missed the conversation with Noel, you can learn more about our sustainability efforts in this LinkedIn article penned by the CSO himself or watch the recording of the live conversation.

We also recently released our 2023 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report that outlines our progress and highlights areas where we aim to make a positive impact on our planet.