Sustainability is about looking to the future. It is about developments that meet the needs of society at the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable systems across all industry sectors are the foundation for our collective futures. Individuals and companies can and must play their part in designing our future by scrutinising every element of their business and the impact it has on people and on the planet.

Can sustainability be the platform that changes the image of the pharmaceutical industry?

Pharmaceutical companies are used to the perpetual struggle with their public personae, trapped as they are in a complex web of conflicting expectations. On the one hand, with their focus on continuous innovation, they are lauded as the panacea for new and emerging diseases (aka COVID), on the other hand, perceived to be profiteering from our health.

Even in this latest unprecedented global pandemic, when pharma almost moved into pole position as the potential saviours, it falls foul of the public. Lambasted for supply chain failures, overstating the clinical hope potential of potential drugs, and perceived as putting business profit before health. Health as a cause, it seems, is too personal and too individual to harness for the common good.

Sustainability is much bigger than any other collective movement in the past, and one of the greatest manifestations of this is that even the capital markets, the engines of all things money and commerce, increasingly value companies for their sustainability credentials, (also known as ESGs – environment, social and corporate governance measures) rather than purely for short term profits. It is because of such pressures that the oil giant BP had to reinvent itself and has a vision for the future beyond oil and gas.

Health and environment are two dominant, universal systems. Harnessed together they can perhaps have the greatest impact yet for reputation. From a corporate perspective, sustainability can absolutely be the platform that gives pharmaceutical companies the opportunity to repurpose their purpose. To ally the much less tangible aspiration of universal health and patient centricity – which resonates with patients but not with people – to a bigger purpose with a more resonant cause: the planet. Some industry sectors are already leading the way, through strong and surprising partnerships or global causes that publics, especially future generations, can identify with. The consumer goods giant, Proctor & Gamble (P&G) announced a huge partnership this year with National Geographic called It’s Our Home, an initiative to bring together experts and climate leaders to discuss the power of nature as a climate solution, and to accelerate the actions needed to address global climate change.

A pharmaceutical product has an enormously long and complex lifecycle, the focus of which until now has been solely on the patient-centred concerns of safety and efficacy. The societal benefits of health have always trumped all other concerns. But, the sustainability challenge for the pharmaceutical industry now is to balance this, without compromise, with serious environmental issues, ranging from green chemistry, end-to-end manufacturing processes, full control of and responsibility for supply chains, the impact of excretion on environmental systems e.g. water pollution, packaging, responsible use and disposal by the end-user, etc.  Any positive changes to a product’s lifecycle towards better more sustainable systems are opportunities for much richer story-telling material than, say, pure product promotion.  Perhaps the winners here will be those who invest a fair proportion of their marketing dollars into better impact dollars.

Thanks to the passion of the next generation, the sustainability agenda will gain momentum.  It presents a huge opportunity for companies to change their purpose and thus their public perception, in action and in how they communicate about it.  There is much to do, and therefore much to talk about.  Every company has the capacity to transform themselves into a beacon for the future, with a real commitment to trading-in short-term visions and profits for building new long-term sustainable systems.  The key is to believe in the principles of having a better impact and work with others towards this universal goal of a better, sustainable world for future generations.

“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”
Alanis Obomsawin, Abernaki Filmaker