The last few weeks have reiterated the critical importance of sustainability action. From Extinction Rebellion and the overwhelmingly positive response the Committee on Climate Change’s call for net zero emission targets by 2050, to the UN’s report on biodiversity, to the pharma-specific crisis around opioids and prosecutions in the US; the issues are high profile, high impact and demand change.

The effect on the pharma industry was spelled out in a focused report by Fitch Solutions. It emphasised both the growing importance of sustainability issues to customers, employees and regulators – and the seemingly slow-moving response from the industry.

While there are many fantastic examples to be found of pharma companies helping to solve complex societal issues, they are not consistent across the industry and are rarely discussed publicly so do little to change the overall reputation of the industry among consumers and governments. As a result, the industry faces near-constant backlash and negative focus, despite appearing in top ten lists for charitable giving globally.

Transparency is key

As the Fitch report says, ‘those firms that implement strategic sustainability practice will outperform their peers over the long term’. The pharma industry is fundamentally about improving people’s health and as such provides social value. However, while companies are often doing a great deal of work in education and capacity building alongside product creation, it is rarely discussed in a holistic way, showing every aspect of how an organisation is seeking to improve health or tackle a specific disease area.

The advantages of moving from a siloed charity-giving model to an integrated problem-solving approach are multiple. With a clear ambition – that includes product creation as part of the solution – both internal and external stakeholders can be united regardless of their specific role or connection with the organisation.

Transparency towards achieving that ambition is key. When GSK published its new sustainability report last Autumn, it detailed clear targets for creating access to medicine and now it must report against them, without fear of showing how difficult some of them are to achieve. Unilever – seen as a leader with its Sustainable Living Plan – recently reported that while it had overachieved on some of its targets, it had failed to meet others and this openness to share challenges as well as success is crucial to building trust.

Business as a community

Interestingly, the key audience that the Fitch report doesn’t include in its drivers and implications of sustainability for the pharma industry is employees. Millennials (who will form 50% of the global workforce by 2020) are favouring sustainable businesses, with more than 90% of business students saying they would be willing to sacrifice some percentage of their future salary to work for a responsible employer1. Sustainability is critical for recruitment and retention – and employees are critical for its achievement.

Typically, when businesses attempt to engage employees they segment them according to their role and responsibility, with information provided on that basis. And while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, if there is a genuine desire to engage employees and change their actions then it’s time to use 20 years of behaviour change experience and think of the organisation as a community.

Communities are complex. They contain multiple audience segments with varied beliefs, influencers, interests, barriers to action and motivations. Despite this, they are interrelated and can become quickly bound together through common and shared experiences.

Behaviour change theory is rooted in the belief that only by understanding individual barriers and motivators, and using these insights to speak directly to those individuals, can the correct messages and interventions be created. Some people will be moved by hard evidence, others self-interest, other altruism and emotional triggers. The core issue being embedded and shared will guide this – it is incorrect to consider one segment as always having the same requirements, irrespective of the theme.

By thinking of a business as a community, and employees as individuals with attitudes rather than roles, it becomes easier to cut through departmental differences and unite individuals who hold similar views and interests around a clear sustainability ambition. Forster has identified six core audience segments within a business community, each of which needs to be treated differently as they are at different stages of the sustainability journey: Outriders, Storytellers, Followers, Cynics, Self-assureds and Rejectors.

Getting the critical mass involved

From harnessing the early adopters, to engaging the storytellers so that the followers will do just that, there are clear pathways to get the critical mass involved in helping to turn the social change goals into reality. It is possible, and desirable, for audiences to move from one segment to another but turning cynics into storytellers requires more careful consideration. Often it is the case that your cynics and self-assureds are so influential within the business that they should join from the start to help shape and own the programme.

The path for pharma companies to be able to unite its programmes and people around a shared goal and to build better relationships with stakeholders is critical for long term sustainability. Achieving goals and rebuilding trust isn’t something that can happen overnight, but it is possible and there are often ‘quick wins’ that already exist and can be bought to life through a new lense.

Pharma has a real opportunity to lead the way in how responsible businesses react to societal challenges – their products already have a lasting impact, now they need to take it step further and ensure they are harnessing the power of their entire organisation to make the biggest positive impact possible. This will not only improve reputation and therefore bottom-line, but also has the potential to create huge societal benefits.

Amanda Powel-Smith is chief executive of Forster Communications