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Building an Effective Lab Sustainability Strategy

Two experts discuss how to develop a data-driven lab sustainability strategy and steps to achieve sustainability goals

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Five-hundred lab managers from the US, UK, Germany, and China participated in a lab sustainability survey conducted by Frost & Sullivan on behalf of Agilent Technologies. The findings showed that most lab leaders (82 percent of survey participants) have adopted sustainability metrics and many have implemented steps to improve their environmental footprint. But how do you know if your lab is utilizing the right types of metrics? Are there ways to further improve your lab sustainability strategy?

Here, Neil Rees, head of ESG Programs, vice president of Workplace Services, Agilent Technologies, and James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, discuss the importance of aligning personal values with organizational sustainability goals, and how lab managers can use specific metrics to guide their decision-making.

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Q: What benefits and positive outcomes can labs see from developing a robust sustainability strategy with measurable goals?

Neil Rees (NR): A primary and positive outcome of labs having a robust sustainability strategy, and seeing it through, is the benefit to our planet and future generations. Without a doubt, it’s the right thing to do from a societal perspective. At its core, sustainability is about the consideration and conservation of resources, which in a lab setting ultimately leads to improving efficiency, saving money, and supporting the long-term success and resilience of the lab. As an example, a focused sustainability strategy can present new ways to scope out product innovations that are more efficient throughput-wise and use fewer resources. Interestingly, there can be a mistaken belief that becoming sustainable costs money. I maintain that becoming more sustainable, conserving resources, and doing things more efficiently ultimately saves money, whether in time spent, energy requirements, chemicals, or waste disposal.

Headshot image of Neil Rees on white background
Neil Rees

Q: What types of metrics are most important to consider when building this strategy? 

NR: It is important to consider various metrics that can help assess lab operations’ environmental, social, and economic impact. It is also essential to set clear targets, regularly monitor progress, and adjust strategies as needed to achieve meaningful and impactful outcomes. The determined metrics are important for lab managers to understand better their environmental progress in areas such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, energy consumption, and management of waste production and recycling.

James Connelly (JC): You can track a broad range of issues when building out your sustainability strategy, including energy and carbon, water, waste reduction, and green chemistry, which can all have a significant financial, human health and safety, and environmental impact. We always recommend that people state what their lab is passionate about or what best ties to their organizational goals.  

Headshot of James Connelly
James Connelly

You will get much more interest and engagement when you focus on an issue near and dear to your team’s heart. By aligning with overall goals and objectives for the organization, you are much more likely to get management buy-in, support and resources. When you are creating metrics, it’s best to start with something that is simple to measure and has a large impact. For example, simply shutting the fume hood sash, which can use as much energy as three American houses, can reduce energy consumption by a third. Typical ULT freezers can use as much energy as a house—simply tuning it from 80 to -70C can reduce their energy consumption by a third. These are just a few simple actions that are straightforward to measure and low cost that can have a significant carbon and cost reduction benefit.

Q: What is an often-overlooked consideration(s) for labs looking to improve their sustainability goals and strategy?

NR: An often-overlooked consideration for labs looking to improve their sustainability goals and strategy is the importance of behavioral change and organizational culture. While implementing technical and operational changes is crucial, addressing the human aspect of sustainability can significantly impact the success of your sustainability initiatives.

Another important but potentially overlooked consideration that labs may miss in their sustainability strategy is the proper management and maintenance of the lab instrumentation itself—the optimization of the instruments. A lab running instruments at maximum efficiency is a more sustainable one. Instruments incorporating built-in data intelligence systems with real-time sensing technology and interconnectivity can provide better visibility into lab operations. By gaining clarity regarding instrument utilization, more informed decisions can be made that can advance those lab operations to new levels of efficiency and productivity, a positive move towards increased sustainability. Also, factoring for the planning for the end-of-life of instruments should be considered, as electronic waste and landfills are a big issue. Vendors who offer trade-in and buyback opportunities on lab assets simultaneously support labs’ efforts to achieve environmentally responsible disposal and their sustainability goals

Q: What are the most effective ways that lab managers can promote sustainability initiatives within their organization? What’s within their scope of responsibility/authority?

NR: Lab managers have significant influence due to their technical expertise and their central role in collaborating with other departments, facility management, and higher-level decision-makers. Lab managers should be sustainability champions and demonstrate their commitment through their actions—walking the talk. Embracing sustainability, talking about it, following through on actions, and encouraging employees to do the same.

Actions such as celebrating sustainability milestones and achievements and acknowledging individuals or teams contributing will build momentum. By taking a proactive approach and integrating sustainability into the lab’s daily practices, lab managers can impact on the organization's overall sustainability goals.

JC: My Green Lab believes that change starts fundamentally with awareness, lab managers need to help their team understand the environmental impact of research and provide them with actionable pathways to make a difference. These actions build confidence, and they should be rewarded with recognition of their leadership through awards and certification. Through this process, you build a culture of sustainability within your lab. You can inspire others across your community—building networks and engaging with sustainability leaders across organizations while teeing into a broader movement. My Green Lab’s Ambassador network is critical to inspiring continued engagement—the impact of your sustainability efforts can extend beyond the four walls of your lab itself.   

Q: How often do you recommend a lab manager evaluates their lab’s sustainability goals/metrics?

JC: My Green Lab requires you to recertify labs on a two-year circle. Many labs opt to complete that sooner, once a year. Sustainability goals and metrics should be integrated into your yearly financial and other targets. Your team should also have goals for individual professional education, where they could leverage My Green Lab’s free Ambassador Program or our more in-depth My Green Lab Accredited Professional course. Once you start establishing targets and start seeing clear progress, it will inspire people to go further, faster, especially once they start seeing the impact of their efforts and are rewarded for their progress in their individual or lab roles.

Q: What types of decisions can managers make based off their lab’s sustainability metrics?

NR: Sustainability metrics help inform lab managers about the efficiency of their lab, the energy consumption of instruments, consumables usage, throughput, and productivity, including the uptime of lab instruments. Metrics enable strategic decisions, for example, such as the size of the lab, whether staffing levels are sufficient, and whether and when instruments should be upgraded. Metrics that leave unanswered questions may prompt the need for outside consultation, and many vendors offer consultancy services. Ultimately, the bottom line is that sustainability is about efficiency, and sustainability metrics enable more informed business decisions and input on areas to improve efficiency. It's all about being competitive in business and running a lab effectively and efficiently while at the same time doing good for the world.

Neil Rees is head of ESG Programs at Agilent, a program that provides an enterprise-wide framework that guides Agilent’s ESG strategy and a governance structure to oversee progress, disclosures, narrative, market driven, and regulatory developments. Neil also leads Agilent’s Enterprise Risk Management Program, which incorporates climate risk and integrates with the ESG program. Additionally, Neil is the vice president of Agilent Workplace Services (WPS) function, which provides strategy and services that encompass facilities management, real estate, and associated functions such as security, environmental health and safety, travel, and car fleet.  

James Connelly is the chief executive officer of My Green Lab and is one of the most influential leaders in the corporate sustainability and green building movement today. James is a frequent keynote speaker on regenerative design, sustainable business, and laboratory sustainability. He is an avid writer, and his research and commentary have been featured in news outlets such as China Dialogue, CGTN TV, Engineering News Record, Building Green, Trim Tab, Sustainable Brands, and GreenBiz. He is also a member of Lab Manager’s editorial advisory board.