Every aspect of the HMF strives towards enabling great sustainability, within the charity and beyond through our work to support families facing breastfeeding challenges.

At the very heart of our work lies the need to feed a growing world population in a more sustainable manner. Helping families to breastfeed their babies has been identified as a key component of actualising the UN Sustainable Development Goals – it saves children’s lives whilst being a food source that does not contribute to the depletion of any natural resources.

The Human Milk Foundation is committed to making a positive difference to the impact of climate change. Our vision is a world where more babies have access to human milk, and parents are better supported to feed their babies with mother’s own milk wherever this is possible. The resultant environmental impact would be profound – you can read more in this Editorial in the British Medical Journal, written by our Co-Founder Dr. Natalie Shenker and two members of our charity’s Sustainability Committee.

Our work contributes towards many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing

Human milk saves babies’ lives. If all premature babies were given access to human milk while mothers are supported to build their own milk supply, a report in 2016 highlighted this policy would save over 250 babies’ lives save £47 million in NHS care costs annually, and prevent £130 million losses to the economy. Scientists at the WHO found that fully supporting women to breastfeed would mean 1.5 million fewer deaths yearly of children under five. Through our team at the Hearts Milk Bank, we support families through crisis points in their lives. Many of the mums we’ve helped report that the lactation support they received and access to screened donor milk supported their mental well being. We help parents to be heard.

SDG 2: Zero hunger

Human milk evolved to support babies’ development, particularly their immune systems and neurological development. Milk also provides every aspect of nutrition for babies up to 6 months and beyond this, supports infants to grow alongside complementary food. This paper published this year, supported by the Hearts Milk Bank team, showed remarkable consistency in human milk composition until 2 years postnatally, and some studies have shown human milk actually increases in fat, protein and antimicrobial content into the second year of lactation. Our central milk bank is based at Rothamsted Institute – a world-leading centre of food security and research institute renowned for innovation – the perfect place for us to be.

SDG 13: Climate action

The HMF is committed to making a positive difference to the impact of climate change. By feeding babies with human milk we reduce the harmful emissions of the formula industry. Millions upon millions of empty formula tins are discarded into landfill each year. One study showed that overall, the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from formula milk production across six countries in 2012 was found to be 2.89 million tonnes of GHG – the rough equivalent to burning 1.4 million kilograms of coal. Within our own organisation we have assessed our carbon footprint and are working to reduce our emissions – particularly in the transportation of donor milk which contributes around 70% of the carbon footprint of each litre of donor milk. Watch out for news on electric vehicles and the use of drones for the transport of donor milk.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production

The Human Milk Foundation is heavily committed to reduction of single-use plastics and as such we are looking to implement glass bottle usage in our work across England and Wales. We work with Terracycle to ensure that as many plastic items as possible used within the milk bank can be recycled including our gloves and plastic bags. Thanks to our charity partnership with EPSON UK we have streamlined our office operations and our equipment includes EPSON Heat-Free EcoTank printers which are designed for sustainable and cost-efficient printing and remove the need for ink cartridges.

SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

We aim to bring together voices from every culture, community and class in the UK. Feeding our babies in the way we choose is a universal human right, but for some there may be little choice. The Human Milk Foundation help families for whom breastfeeding is impossible, such as mothers who previously underwent breast tissue removal surgery as a result of breast cancer, or for whom breastfeeding would be harmful to the infant for example when the mother is being treated for cancer or is taking certain medications (this is rare). Other mothers and families may be in need of donor milk as a supplement to the milk they are able to produce or until their lactation and breastfeeding is fully established for example same sex male or trans couples or single parents who have given birth to a baby via a surrogate or who have adopted a child. Where one or more parents are female, lactation may be induced but this can take several months and may not result in sufficient milk being produced to fully feed a baby. Providing access to safe, screened donor milk gives families greater choice and allows all parents the opportunity to feed their babies with human milk.

SDG 4: Quality education

The science of human milk is astonishing – human milk contains thousands of components including those that kill cancerous cells, stem cells, antibodies that protect against infection and natural painkillers. We are undertaking ground-breaking research to establish the full list of components of human milk and their potential for use in human health across a lifetime, along with research into cancer markers in human milk. We co-produce human milk science resources and develop training modules for clinicians, universities and healthcare teams. In the future, our team is working already on developing Human Milk Science modules for secondary schools.

SDG 5: Gender equality

We believe at The Human Milk Foundation that providing support for both parents in the antenatal period and during maternity/paternity leave is paramount. Support for both mothers and fathers is often not accessible, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and we are working to change this. Our Co-Founder Dr. Natalie Shenker and Professor Amy Brown published this paper on the devastating effect of COVID-19 on new parents which you can read in Maternal & Child Nutrition. It is also crucial to achieving gender parity and economic independence that women are helped to feed their babies with the full support of their families, communities, employers and governments whilst helping them pursue their education and jobs.

SDG 1: No poverty

Access to human milk is a human right. Equity of access is a fundamental pillar of our work – regardless of race, religion, or wealth. Our services to families in the community will always remain free at the point of care, supported by the work of the charity. The Hearts Milk Bank are working to reach more vulnerable families and ensure that our services will always be prioritised for the most vulnerable. Milk donors donate their surplus milk to help other families in need – donating what you don’t use is a core principle behind this goal.

SDG 15: Life on land

We are currently planning a project to create the first ‘Milk Wood’, aiming to plant mixed-species broad leaved native trees that can contribute to offsetting the carbon footprint of our milk bank operations. We are working alongside Woods for the Trees – a non-profit organisation which provides training and expertise in creating and managing woodland. In Autumn 2020 our team, along with volunteers from EPSON UK, planted a giant snowdrop heart outside the milk bank to honour and thank the special mothers who choose to donate milk after the death of their baby. You can read about the snowdrops project in this article in the Hemel Hempstead Gazette. We aim to create more beautiful places for people to visit across the UK close to our network of hubs, raising awareness of milk banking and striving to become the first carbon neutral milk bank on the planet.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals

Partnerships are essential to driving change on a global level. The HMF works with a coalition of support organisations and charities within the UK with the unifying aim of providing better support for new parents to feed their babies as they wish. During the COVID-19 pandemic we initiated a Global Alliance of Milk Banks and Associations to collaborate on safety and best practice and drive research. We have a three year charity partnership with EPSON UK and are strategically aligned in our work towards the UN SDGs together. By working closely alongside the WHO & UNICEF, we are united in our mission to make a better future for the next generation.

Snowdrop planting

Last week, volunteers from Epson in Hemel Hempstead joined members of the Human Milk Foundation team and the Hearts Milk Bank plant a giant snowdrop heart in honour of bereaved mums who donate their milk to help other babies.