Practice Profile: Green Vets

One of the many lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that sustainability and the need to live more lightly on our planet have now become urgent objectives for everybody and every business. For experienced small animal vet Rob Douwes, these concepts were the driving force when he opened Green Vets in York 18 months ago…

James Westgate |  Vettimes Issue 214, Pages 13-15 | January 15, 2021

Green Vets is the first independent practice to open its doors in York for more than 15 years, which in itself makes the place remarkable.

But what really makes Green Vets stand out is its commitment to environmental sustainability; something Rob Douwes and his wife Anne had practised in their own lives long before deciding to open their own independent practice last summer. For many years the couple had been making careful and conscious decisions about how to reduce their own carbon footprints, and starting a business seemed an ideal way to amplify their efforts.

But there are no giant turbines or solar panels here – going green for Rob and Anne has simply been about taking their own personal ethos into the wider world of business.

Rob said: “From the very start we were thinking about running a responsible and sustainable practice, as we are both very responsible about what we purchase and what energy we get at home.

“As an individual you can do a lot with things like recycling and where you get your energy from, but if you have a business then everyone who is associated with that business is automatically buying into the ideal.

“People come here, they bring their pets and they get treated in the way we feel is responsible – all our electricity is sourced through a company called Good Energy, which is 100% renewable, so they don’t even have to think about it. That is the key in making a change – choosing a modality where you don’t actually have to do anything yourself and we provide that.

“But it’s gone amazingly well, and we are about a year ahead of our projections and turning over £500,000 annually, and have 1,500 registered clients after only 18 months, which is great for just two vets.

“I don’t believe for one minute it is all because we are environmentally sustainable – some people couldn’t give a monkeys and wouldn’t care if I burnt tyres in the back garden, and that is fine. It doesn’t matter if they know we are sustainable because we do it anyway and they offset their responsibilities by choosing us and that is fine with me.”

Pragmatic approach

The fact most Green Vets clients assume the practice is simply named after the Green Lane it sits in and not for its environmentally friendly credentials speaks volumes for the couple’s low-key and pragmatic approach to sustainability.

No certificates are on show in reception or Passivhaus construction techniques used in the fabric of their building – it’s a pretty standard, converted residential bungalow in the Acomb district of York.

But for Rob, that’s the point; by choosing a pre-built site in the heart of the community they wished to serve, Green Vets was already living up to its name before the doors even opened.

He added: “The fact it is an existing site makes it greener as you reduce your carbon footprint just by not having to build anything new. But it always had to be something like this; somewhere in the heart of town, as we didn’t want to be on an industrial site away from where people can’t take the bus or walk to with their pets. We want to be part of a local community where people can just walk in with their pets, so we are not just reducing our carbon footprint – by being where we are we are reducing the carbon footprint of our clients.

“Going back to being a bit smaller and more self-contained, and all the things that made it work in the past, are the things we are trying to recapture. The

COVID thing has brought it to a head really; local businesses have been a lot more robust than the big national chains and that is a lesson really.”

Sustainable practice

Green Vets sources all its electricity from the aforementioned Good Energy, with the firm buying 100% renewable energy from independent generators whose sources range from urban solar farms to bio-generation from waste dairy products and wind power in the UK.

In July, Rob and Anne went a step further by acquiring what they claim to be the UK’s first zero emissions, fully electric veterinary ambulance. The vehicle is charged with 100% renewable electricity, while the practice even reduces its carbon footprint with its choice of internet supplier by using a hosting package on a UK-based server located in a 100% renewable energy-powered data centre.

Green Vets also uses a large range of biodegradable and compostable bio-plastics, as Rob explained: “We don’t want to compromise our clinical care; we don’t want to be re-washing syringes like we did 30-odd years ago, but we do buy a green line in plastic syringes and disposable plastics, which are again made using renewable energy. We use compostable aprons and compostable gloves – obviously we use a lot of those, especially with COVID of course. Our surgical drapes are also biodegradable.

“We have also made sure our cleaning materials are as friendly for the environment as possible. It is a difficult one as we need a sterile atmosphere, but you can do a lot more than just following the same road that everyone else does by just doing a bit of research and talking to experts.”

Growing green

The growth of the business has been boosted by the fact Rob and Anne’s ethos of not taking more than their share of resources extends to practice revenues, too. Rob added: “We started with just myself and my wife – two vets – and that is key as we don’t have to generate a massive amount of money and that has helped the growth process.

“Having control over something you believe in is so rewarding that actually having a massive dividend payout is not actually what it is all about. A lot of people should look at how responsible they are for this environmental slide – it is based on taking more than we should and that is a lesson for all of us really. Doing something you love doing in a way that means you can stand up and say you did it properly, correctly and ethically in itself is worth a lot – you don’t necessarily need tonnes of money as well.”

During the past 18 months the practice team has steadily grown around Rob and Anne to include three receptionists, three vet nurses and an animal care assistant.

The steady increase in demand for their services means Green Vets will add another vet to the team in February, which should give Rob and Anne the chance to take a day o for the first time in 18 months.

Handling their own out-of-hours also adds to the workload, but Rob believes offering clients continuity of care has been a key part of their success. He added: “We do our own OOH and that is because a lot of people like seeing the same person – especially in their hour of need, if they are bleeding or fitting – they want someone who knows their pet and has access to their clinical records in that situation.

“That is probably why most people come to us – less for the green side of things, but more for the fact that we are independent and do our own OOH. Having two highly experienced vets means we can manage that and that is also a big selling point for our clients; they really value that experience.”

Next generation

It has taken a lot of effort, but the story of Green Vets proves that it is still possible to go it alone and take on the big boys by offering something a little different.

And Rob hopes his story will give inspiration to the next generation of practice owners looking to do things their own way. He added: “This is very doable. I have 15 years left in me and I didn’t want to spend those years being in a corporate business, and there are many other vets out there like me, and I would say to them they should do this and find a new way to work in a profession that we all love to serve.

“Our story illustrates what people want and the fact we have lost very few clients at all is a real endorsement for our model, and hopefully a heartening thing for younger colleagues in the profession to hear.

“If you want to take the plunge, go for it, because you can take on the corporates as you have the flexibility and the hard work to put into your own business, and it won’t just go into someone’s dividend. It is tiring, but it is hugely satisfying.”