Recognising the role of communications in building a sustainable business

Delivering sustainability is a relatively new concept for commercial businesses, with pharma being no exception. However, the recent years of high-profile campaigning have catapulted the topic much higher on the public’s agenda, with an ever-increasing realisation of the challenges we are facing and the need for action, not later, but starting now.

Shareholders, our Millennial workforce, governments, our customers, peers and competitors are all catalysing this need to address sustainability as an essential component of corporate strategy. High profile commitments from prominent companies such as Unilever highlight that this topic is already at the boardroom table in some of the world’s biggest commercial organisations. So, what role does the communications function play in developing, promoting and achieving sustainability goals in the pharmaceutical sector?

That was the question discussed at a recent roundtable organised by the Healthcare Communications Association in partnership with Forster Communications and Cello Health. Timed to coincide with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York, it provided the opportunity for in-house pharma communicators to explore the concept of sustainability and why it makes good business sense to be sustainable within the sector.

As Ben Kellard, director of Business Strategy at The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, explains, the challenges we face are not science fiction, but are very sobering science fact: “The science is highlighting the risks from current human behaviour and how accelerating climate change will radically destabilise the world around us in the near future.” Outlining just some of these, he continues: “For example, by 2050, we’re going to need 50%-70% more electricity, 20%-30% more water and approximately 60%-100% more food (which is as much food as we’ve produced in the last 8,000 years).” Perhaps most thought- provoking, Ben adds: “At the moment we are dramatically degrading our soil health, in this country [UK] we are expecting around about 60 harvests left, using existing farming methods.”

The global stability of our economic, social and political systems is at risk from the existential threat of climate change and how non-sustainable business activity is continuing to destabilise our environment.

All businesses will be profoundly impacted by these changes which are reshaping the commercial landscape. Business cannot succeed if society and the environment fail, so there is an urgent need for the industry to move from treatment to prevention, especially for middle- and lower-income populations.

Put simply, like all business, the pharmaceutical sector needs to increase sustainability action and urgently move from ‘can we afford it’ to ‘we can’t afford not to’.  Recruitment and retention of talent will also be a key driver for the pharmaceutical sector with Millennials and Gen Z putting principles and business practices high on their list of employer requirements.

The introduction of sustainable practices helps to drive productivity and is increasingly being linked to investment to support new initiatives. For businesses that act fast, there is a real competitive opportunity as customers seek to cut carbon from their supply chain.

Critically, public perceptions about sustainability are evolving and there is a growing demand for the pharmaceutical sector to act in a responsible and sustainable manner. Failure to integrate sustainable approaches into existing business practice within the sector will lead to both economic and reputational damage.

Andy Brown, head of Sustainability at Anglian Water, has seen his organisation embed sustainability at its heart, it recently becoming the first water company to enshrine public interest in the constitutional make up of its business.

He emphasises: “There is a necessity to get senior-level agreement to make change that is real and relevant to the business, you need to have conversations at every level of the business to ensure that all employees are aligned with sustainability goals, and it is critically important to seek help and information from stakeholders outside of your business.”

The communicator’s role is clearly highly important in embedding sustainability. This is further highlighted by recent comments from Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope in publicly recognising the organisation’s then head of Comms, as taking a pivotal role in the executive team that led work to embed the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

When considering sustainability within the pharmaceutical sector, there are many identifiable risks and opportunities including drug manufacturing, supply chain processes, employee engagement and to secure optimal health outcomes for current and future generations. There will undoubtedly start to be more sustainability requirements appearing in procurement contracts. Will we start to see contracts or reimbursement approvals not just being decided on QALYs, but sustainability criteria as well?  Will healthcare professionals start including sustainability of packaging or presentation as a positive factor in making a prescribing choice? We are certainly already seeing some of these discussions appear in the asthma inhaler market, with recent research led by the University of Cambridge looking at the carbon footprint of some inhalers and showing it accounts for almost 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the NHS. Also, at healthcare system level, will pharma be able to unlock prevention as a business model, to really make it both profitable and realistic to help the global population avoid getting ill in the first place?

Pharma communicators certainly believe there is an obligation for the sector to act responsibly and that the communications department has a central role to play in driving sustainable change. Edel McCaffrey, global corporate communications specialist, explains: “As communicators, I think we’ve got an obligation and responsibility to be the voice of sustainability within our organisations. We need to make sure that we are clear ourselves about what it really is, we need to understand what success looks like, and articulate why being a sustainable company is so important.”

Communicators will benefit from engaging with other senior level colleagues, identify others within the organisation who can also act as influential voices in championing sustainability.

Importantly, pharma communicators at the workshop agreed there is a need to redefine the concept and definition of sustainability in a way that is directly meaningful to the pharmaceutical sector in its totality. This will be key to communicating sustainability more clearly to both internal and external audiences. The HCA will continue supporting industry communicators in achieving this goal, with follow-on workshops planned.

“Communications will be critical in driving forward change within the pharmaceutical industry, and that will be for both internal and external communications,” said Nishma Shah, head of Corporate Affairs at Roche. “From an internal communications perspective, it’s really important that your people, the talent that you’re employing and future talent that you want to come into your company, are really supportive of driving this agenda of sustainability. From an external communications perspective, it’s important that people in the general public are aware of the critical role pharma businesses play in society, essentially helping people live longer and better lives.”

The case for sustainability is clear and senior leaders increasingly recognise they need to act. Communications is critical, both in making this happen and supporting businesses and the sector through a period of significant change. From innovation and collaboration, to internal engagement and involvement, to external understanding and feedback, communications professionals need to put sustainability at the heart of everything they do.

Mike Dixon is chief executive of the Healthcare Communications Association, Amanda Powell-Smith is chief executive of Forster Communications and Jo Taylor is head of Corporate Affairs at Cello Health Communications.