Overview: WHO as a model of sustainability?

Being a role model in corporate governance in terms of sustainability is not very easy. Although it appears that more and more companies are venturing down the path of sustainability, the strategies of these are questionable, or at least not clear, on closer inspection. As a so-called special organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, WHO for short, is internationally known and coordinates public health with its headquarters in Geneva.

Since health is a significant aspect of sustainability for our generation and the generations to come, we asked ourselves how environmentally conscious is WHO in its governance and vision, given that its goal is to fulfill the best possible level of health in every human being. Their vision is undoubtedly a contribution to sustainability - but is it the same for the company itself?

What is the WHO

WHO was founded on April 7, 1948, with 194 countries currently members of the UN (i.e., United Nations) sub-organization. Since July 2017, the specialized agency has been headed by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  The goal of WHO, as mentioned above and in the name of the organization, is to ensure global health for every person to the best of their ability. The focus is on fighting infectious diseases and building general well-being globally.

Six points for sustainable management?

WHO itself provides several publicly available strategies for sustainable management, which, according to the organization's own statements, identify concrete steps for positive further development in relation to environmental management. In the process, several initiatives have been published that converge with the UN 2020-2030 Strategy for Sustainable Management and six management functions. These would be:

1. acquisition

According to WHO has a sustainable regulation of the acquisition.

2. human resources

HR and staff collaborate on sustainable issues and determine specific home office or remote work rules.

3. facilities

The WHO headquarters in Geneva is to be climate-friendly by 2024.

4. travel

For professional travel, the environment and emissions consumption is taken into account.

5. events

On the agenda are events without plastic and paper - in connection with more video conferences in the future. Care is also taken not to waste food and to use reusable glasses. Sustainable catering services are used, which also offer vegetarian options - there are no plastic bottles in the drinks machines.

6. ICT

(i.e., information and communications technology) Subsequently, conferences are held digitally when possible, online documents are created and used, registered electronically to reduce paper use and minimize travel.

7. road traffic

WFS (WHO Fleet Services) and WHO itself work closely together to protect the environment by reducing fuel and modernizing the fleet (i.e. car fleet). Drivers receive training in environmentally friendly driving and additional modern and electronic vehicles are used. The headquarters is pursuing the goal of replacing all operational vehicles with plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

8. EMP

(i.e. Environmental Management Procedures) For internal due diligence practices related to environmental management, WHO has its own procedures that actively increase energy-efficient work practices.

In addition, WHO is actively working with UN Environment Management Group (i.e. EMG) and Sustainable UN Team (i.e. SUN) agencies to become more environmentally and climate friendly.
WHO is also part of what is called the Greening the Blue Initiative. This is a UNEP (i.e. United Nations Environment Programme) working group to help the UN transform to more sustainable facilities and operational processes. More on this below.

WHO Environmental Performance

Since 2009, WHO has been measuring and publishing its own greenhouse gas emissions.

CO2 footprint

According to the archives, the organization estimates that about 32,149 T of CO2 (or its equivalent) was emitted.

Air traffic

Air traffic accounts for around 92% of emissions. In comparison, one inhabitant of Germany consumed an average of 7.9 T CO2 in 2019.


In addition, WHO measures and publishes the waste it produces itself and has a waste management system. Around 99% of the waste generated is also recycled or reused.

Water consumption

The organization also measures the consumption of water. From 2017 to 2018, water consumption was minimized almost 7-fold.

Environmental management

WHO is also considering including all regional offices in the carbon footprint assessment and expanding sustainability management to global level.

Reduce emissions

WHO encourages video conferencing in lieu of corporate travel, or if possible, the use of train transportation and vehicles is being pushed. Data shows: use of train as a mode of transport has doubled in 2019 compared to 2018.
In addition, investments are being made in video and audio technology so that meeting rooms are optimally equipped for modern telecommunications, including translations.
Electronic services are being brought to the fore. Among other things, with the help of:

  • Virtualization of different services
  • electronic signature
  • Reduced printing
  • Minimization of personal printing equipment
  • Cloud storage
  • Server rooms are cooled with sustainable energy

Currently, there are also discussions about a possible reducing air traffic policy.

Vision of the future

Growth and development is a big part of sustainability. Many companies use the guise of sustainable or organic to use these terms for pure marketing purposes without, however, a deeper, moral purpose. So let's take a closer look at whether WHO's vision of the future uses the term sustainability merely as a trend, or whether ecologically environmentally conscious corporate management is meant seriously.
According to WHO, investment is being made in active collaboration with the Active Green group and the Staff Association, for which a so-called Greening WHO initiative has been established.

Greening the Blue Initiative

The Greening the Blue Initiative publishes an annual report (The UN system's Enviromental Footprint), in which the collected ecological savings, consumption and environmental impacts are publicly visible. The report covers the previous year, i.e. the Greening the Blue Report 2020 deals with the data from 2019, so the next report for 2020 is eagerly awaited, as the impact of the COVID pandemic will certainly have an impact on travel, which accounts for more than 90% of emissions. This is split into two parts:

  • Brochure: This focuses on the data collected and evaluates it as a whole.
  • Data analysis: For this purpose, data (i.e., environmental impacts and measures to mitigate them) from each WHO facility on the greeningtheblue.org homepage will be provided and analyzed.

Specifically, data collection showed that in 2019, the country produced about 2 million T of CO2 emissions-equivalent with per capita emissions of about 6.5 T CO2 - less than the average German. Compared to the Greening the Blue Report from 2010, which recorded per capita emissions of 8.3 T, this is about 1.8 T less.

With 97% of 2019 emissions reported, the UN system is on track to meet its goal of 100 percent carbon neutrality of its footprint in 2020. Progress has also been made on environmental policy, and five other UN entities have made progress in implementing environmental management systems. In the process, 97% of environmental emissions were reversed in 2019.
Generally, information can be tracked well through such data processing for the purpose of reducing emissions. Furthermore, it can also better support a management approach to sustainability.

Greening and Accessibility Fonds

The GrAF (i.e. Greening and Accessibility Fund), launched by UNICEF, aims to help organisations create sustainable change at the global level. This allows UNICEF offices to access the fund twice a year. This is generated through a 3% air travel surcharge and aims to minimise environmental impact on a small scale. This has enabled 1.2 million USD to be made available through the last three GrAF capital collections. Examples of use of the fund would be:


  • UNICEF Uruguay: With the help of the capital, old air-conditioning systems could be renewed and the lighting in the offices could be replaced by energy-saving LED lights with motion sensors.


  • UNICEF Ashgabat: Here, too, the LED lights with detectors were replaced, resulting in a 20 % saving on energy costs.


  • FAO and UNDP in Ghana: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO for short) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP for short) worked together in 2019 to set up photovoltaic systems that would save between 30 and 40 % of the UN agencies' energy needs.


  • UNON in Nairobi: In Kenya, the biological flora and fauna at the site was expanded through landscape conversions.


WHO has taken several steps to collect and track the emissions the organisation produces. This will allow for a better accounting of success. They are focusing on six administrative sectors (procurement, HR, facilities, travel, events, ICT, road transport and environmental management) where they are making improvements. In terms of annual CO2 emissions consumption, they are already below the per capita consumption of citizens in our latitudes. However, more than 90% of this is still made up of aviation fuel, which will be reduced in the future, according to the WHO.

The 2020 report will accordingly show how much this has happened. There is already a consensus on the perception and behaviour towards telecommunications for events and meetings. This was also demonstrated by the 73rd WHO Assembly in 2020, which was completely virtual. This momentum should not be lost, so that the transformation to an emissions-free enterprise can take place. If this happens, WHO would indeed be a pioneer in international sustainable corporate governance.


United Nations Environment Programme (2020). Greening the Blue Report 2020: The UN System’s Environmental Footprint and Efforts to Reduce it. Geneva: UNEP.



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