Leading Kaiser Permanente to Develop Healthy Environments to Foster Health

By path2positive

It was January 1969 when 100,000 barrels of crude oil spewed from a ‘blowout’ at an offshore platform six miles off the coast Santa Barbara, a beautiful seaside town in southern California. Kathy Gerwig and her family moved there a few months after the spill.

“I got involved in the clean up and some of the restoration work,” recalls Gerwig. “I learned what environmental devastation looks like, and saw first hand what was lost and regained.”

Considered to be a major factor in the birth of the modern-day environmental movement, the Santa Barbara oil spill deeply influenced Gerwig. Her quest to discover how disasters like this could be avoided, led her to the Environmental Studies program at San Francisco State. After a career consulting on policy with environmental non-profits, Gerwig dreamed of creating change on a wider social scale.  “The work of the neighbors and the community banding together during the oil spill, working together to make a difference and heal the community inspired me. I learned so much from that on so many levels, it has stuck with me to this day", says Gerwig.

Branding By Example


Gerwig got her chance to lead a large-scale sustainability effort in 1993 when she joined Kaiser Permanente. As one of the nation's largest not-for-profit health care providers serving more than 9.5 million members, Gerwig took on developing and managing its nationwide environmental strategy. Her vision has played a key role in transforming Kaiser Permanente into a model of environmental leadership.

for America’s health care sector. It has encouraged staff, physicians and patients throughout the system to pay attention to the environment and consider how it directly contributes to their communities’ and their patients’ health.

Gerwig firmly believes “there can be no health without healthy environments,” and infuses this message into Kaiser Permanente’s everyday operations. Kaiser Permanente has implemented a wide-ranging series of initiatives. From phasing out medical products and building materials that use the harmful plastic PVC, to sponsoring more than 300 facility engineers and others to train as certified energy managers or participate in programs to enhance their energy-efficiency knowledge. Kaiser Permanente has minimized the use of toxic materials and maximized energy efficiency in existing facilities.

In 2013 alone, Kaiser Permanente collected 208 tons of medical devices for safe, FDA-approved remanufacturing. By repurchasing these devices, the organizations avoided more than $9 million in costs.

Gerwig notes progress often leads to unexpected discoveries, “One obstacle we've overcome is the myth that going green costs more money. We have measurable ways to show the benefit of sustainability that would meet any CFO's criteria about what constitutes a healthy investment.”


In 2012, the company committed to a 30 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction from 2008 levels by 2020. Last year, Kaiser Permanente announced it would seek LEED Gold certification for all its new hospitals and major construction projects, with plans to spend almost $30 billion over the next 10 years. LEED recently added a LEED for Healthcare standard to help meet the growing movement for green hospital construction. Kaiser Permanente’s willingness to make forward-thinking and ambitious commitments has successfully established the brand in the public’s perception as the industry's thought leader.

From Collaboration to Collective Impact

But, Kaiser Permanente didn't stop there. They started the first hospital-based weekly farmers market in 2003, which proved to be not only a remarkable success but an effective model for making a highly visible connection between environmental health and healthy behavior. The farmers markets have been so successful that there are now more than 50 at Kaiser Permanente facilities. “Our physicians and staff are partners in the health of their communities, and the markets are a great example of taking a broad view of the role of health care organizations” says Gerwig.

A passionate ambassador for the health care provider, Gerwig’s commitment resonates with Kaiser Permanente’s innovative, inclusive approach to community health. She serves on the boards of several leading non-governmental organizations focused on safety and environmental sustainability, including Health Care Without Harm. Gerwig’s book, Greening Health Care describes efforts to reduce the burden hospital operations put on their local communities without sacrificing safe and effective care for patients. Gerwig is also a popular media spokesperson, offering tips and suggestions for making simple improvements in our daily activities that support climate solutions and greater personal health.

Keys To Success 

  • Connect environmental commitment to your mission.
  • Engage employees in developing innovative approaches.
  • Partner with other organizations to increase impact.



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