Pharma 2022

Oct 11, 2022 - Oct 13, 2022, Nice Acropolis, Nice, France

The world’s gathering for pharma pioneers and health innovators

Speeding pharma’s slow sustainability journey

There’s much more pharma could and should do to drive positive change in the climate fight and action is no longer optional 



As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26 to discuss the next steps in the bid to tackle climate change, pharma’s sustainability record is coming under greater scrutiny than ever.

The public glare reveals much room for improvement but also, happily, many positive next steps industry leaders can take for the good of their own companies as well as of society at large, and of the planet.

This is the message that Gary Cohen, President, Health Care Without Harm wants them to take away as the imperative to do more and with greater urgency becomes clearer.

There are several pillars around which pharma can effect positive change, says Cohen. These include:

Carbon tracking and transparency
Among the most obvious measures that pharma is now being obliged to take is joining with other industry sectors to committing to setting ambitious and credible carbon cutting targets and implementing plans to make this happen. Healthcare contributes 4.4% of total global emissions and pharmaceuticals make up a significant part of this.

The world’s healthcare systems, led by the likes of the UK’s NHS and Kaiser Permanente, are waking up to the urgency of the task of broader sustainability and are moving up a gear from merely setting internal climate targets, to striving to  achieve further and faster change.

Given that a significant source of the emissions of every business is from outside them along their supply chains, tracking these is becoming an unavoidable part of the process. “They need to be tracking their carbon footprint and they need to be transparent,” says Cohen. “Benchmark your progress, make it accountable and show us how you’re doing."

Embracing the circular economy
A big opportunity for pharma to become more sustainable is addressing the extensive use of disposable items used in its products by exploring options to reuse or at least recycle. It’s not easy but there are some encouraging projects. 

For example, the UK’s first medicine packet recycling programme was rolled out this year across pharmacies nationwide and inhaler recycling schemes being trialled by the NHS are aiming to reduce the plastic and aluminium waste they create. Another project by Novo Nordisk, is developing a prototype machine capable of recycling plastic insulin-injector pens into furniture.

But action on a far greater scale is needed to address the really big impacts. “There are enormous environmental consequences to the production and disposal of pharmaceuticals,” says Cohen. “There are some major industrial areas in India and China and Brazil where there’s enormous environmental consequence for the people that live around those places. The companies need to take responsibility for those.”

Cutting down on waste
Cutting waste whether in packaging or cleaning up the supply chain is even more effective as there’s less material to dispose of, reuse or recycle, as well as far less water and chemical use. Some actions are easier than others. “At a simple level get rid of packaging,” says Cohen. “There’s so much waste in packaging.”

There’s a huge opportunity for cost savings by cutting waste. For every dollar earned, globally pharma emits 55% more greenhouse gas than the automotive industry, according to a 2019 study by the Journal of Cleaner Production. 

Pharma also has a part to play in exploring medicine expiry dates, which can be extended, in some cases, by up to five years longer than the date marked on the packet, adds Cohen. “We really need to look at extending the shelf live of pharmaceuticals so we are not wasting such a huge amount of medicines.”

Addressing climate impacts on our health
Within a decade, 250,000 more people are expected to die each year as a result of the impacts of climate change on their health. It’s a stark reminder that everything is connected - including our health systems and our ecosystems.

These human health effects of a changing climate, be it from poorer air quality or heat-related impacts, will create demands on healthcare that will be hard to sustain.

Pharma companies need to ask themselves if they are simply in the business of selling the sticking plasters to treat these issues or whether they should also be looking at the bigger picture and helping tackle the problem upstream, says Cohen. 

“Ultimately is there a new social contract between the industry and society where it does not just exist to make life saving drugs? The world needs to invest significantly in upstream interventions that prevent disease. Can the healthcare business move upstream?”

Pharma leaders may not see this apparently more abstracted set of climate-related issues as their domain or responsibility but if they are truly serious about the commitments they make on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) declarations, they should be. 

And there are some obvious actions that could be taken here. “Pharmaceutical companies have enormous advertising budgets and enormous communications capacity,” says Cohen. “Why can’t they take some of that to educate people about things that are preventable? 

“The impacts of climate change are not just about polar bears. They are also about asthma, heat stress, wildfire smoke, or malaria. It is a question of accountability. What is the social contract between these companies and society? It’s a profound question.”

It’s a fraught issue that pharma is not alone in facing and no one is saying these issues are easy to address.

But Cohen stresses that pharma cannot ignore the growing demand from governments and health systems to engage and to drive meaningful action.

“My organisation has been reaching out to governments in advance of COP26 saying ‘we want you to make a commitment to your own people to build resiliency, and to understand the vulnerabilities of your population and to make a commitment to reductions in the care system’.

“There is a level of momentum around healthcare and climate we have not seen before, so pharma has to step up to meet the bold ambitions of the leading healthcare services. There’s an imperative to act now.”


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Pharma 2022

Oct 11, 2022 - Oct 13, 2022, Nice Acropolis, Nice, France

The world’s gathering for pharma pioneers and health innovators