Sustainability drive also worth the investment for smaller pharma firms

26 May 2021 by Grace Coleman
blog author

Acre’s Kate O’Rourke, Senior Consultant, was recently featured in an article by CPhIonline, providing her insight into sustainability and the pharmaceutical sector. The article engaged various industry experts to better understand whether sustainability was worth the investment for smaller pharma firms.​

Written by Gareth Macdonald — 20 Apr 2021, Published on CPhIonline

Sustainability takes effort, but the benefits of economically viable, environmentally responsible operations are worth it, even for smaller drug companies

Discussion of sustainability in pharma usually focuses on efforts to minimize the environmental impact of drug production. And there are good reasons for this, says Adrian La Porta, chair of IChemE’s Pharma Special Interest Group.

“Many of the drug substances which are the active ingredients in pharmaceuticals are produced by chemical synthesis or, in the case of antibiotics, using organic chemicals for extraction and purification,” he says, explaining that often the chemicals used are harmful to the environment.

He adds that because active drug substances are relatively complex molecules compared to many fine chemicals, “they have many steps in their chemical synthesis and so gram for gram have a high environmental footprint.”

This view is shared by Caterina Sullivan, CEO of Strategic Sustainability Consultants, who says that while no sustainability challenges are necessarily unique to any one industry, waste minimisation is an incredibly important issue when it comes to the sustainability of the pharmaceutical industry.

“A number of studies by assorted UN bodies, including UNESCO and the World Health Organisation, have found increased contamination of soil and water due to poor waste treatment and minimisation,” she says. “These have follow-on effects to both human health and the sustainability of our flora and fauna. “

Social and economic sustainability

True sustainability encompasses more than just the environmental impact. In 2015 (1), some 193 countries signed up to the United Nations' “17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development.” These goals cover environmental as well as social and economic sustainability.

Sullivan says, “To fully be participating in sustainability, pharmaceutical companies must be willing to commit to social sustainability also. This requires these companies to be mindful of how they advertise and sell their products so as not to harm people’s physical or mental health and well-being.

“The opportunity the pharmaceutical industry sees in engaging in these sustainability practices is quite substantial. Due to these products being viewed as a necessity for many, there is very rarely any question as to whether or not the individual will buy the product.”

She adds that when it comes down to protecting the environment or potentially saving their own life, people will more likely decide to purchase and use the product, meaning the industry is not necessarily held to account as much as the beauty industry, for example.

“However, if a pharmaceutical company can provide an equally effective product with more sustainable practices, this will be an enormous opportunity for the company,” she says.

Sustainability challenges

The specific steps involved in adopting sustainable business and production practices differ depending on the size of the organisation involved and the resources available to it.

According to Sullivan, “all companies can start to take their first steps to a more sustainable future. While larger companies often have more resources to take such steps, there’s also the added complexity of working across all operations of the organisation. A smaller company may find it easier to address sustainability due to their smaller operational components.”

To address these issues, many larger drug companies have established sustainability teams to manage efforts. Notable examples include GSK (2), AstraZeneca (3), Takeda (4) and Sanofi (5).

For smaller companies, the costs associated with setting up in-house sustainability management capacity as well as manufacturing, distribution and business operations can be daunting.

Fortunately, according to Sullivan, some sustainability practices require low or no upfront costs: “The low-hanging fruit of the sustainability world such as digitising records and printing less or using recycled paper where possible are great starts for businesses. On the social sustainability side of things, ensuring gender and cultural diversity in the workplace is important and can be done at little to no cost.”

She explains that the logical next step in this is the practices with upfront costs that deliver savings in the long-term, including things like LED lights, solar panels and rainwater tanks.

“When it comes to some of the more impactful practices that can also be considered risk reduction practices, companies start looking at a higher price tag. This includes practices like performing research into new waste treatment and disposal policies and programs, finding suppliers with a greater commitment to sustainability and working with other organisations to increase the sustainability of packaging,” she says.

SME sustainability tool-kit

For these more costly sustainability measures, help is available, according to Sullivan, who suggests the UN global goals are an excellent place to start.

“The 17 goals are accompanied by 169 targets and 232 unique measurable indicators,” she says. “Many of these indicators can be applied to business practices and can offer a holistic approach to sustainability. The low-hanging fruit practices are best for smaller organisations.”

She continues that for smaller companies, choosing a few specific things to focus on is also a great way to approach sustainability at first to ensure it does not become too overwhelming: “These efforts can then be measured against the associated metrics outlined in the Global Goals.”

In addition, the UN goals encourage companies to work together on sustainability. Number 17 - Partnerships for the Goals – suggests smaller organisations work with larger firms to achieve sustainability practices. For example, a small pharmaceutical company might partner with a large packaging company to come up with a sustainable solution.


Drug companies interested in sustainability also have the option of working with a specialist. In recent years an ecosystem of advisors has developed to support industry efforts to achieve the UN goals. Sullivan, who head one such organisation, says there are options for both small and large companies.

“While Strategic Sustainability Consultants works across a broad spectrum of consultancy topics, we are particularly focused on supporting small businesses in their sustainability journey.

“Many larger companies have in-house expert teams, who we also work with to independently audit their work; however, small businesses can turn to consultancy firms to seek support in the area.”

Kate O’Rourke, senior consultant at Acre, also says pharmaceutical companies should seek expertise when trying to develop sustainable operations.

“Having a sustainability leader who can educate, drive change and influence across all business functions and stakeholders, is key to achieving a more sustainable business model,” she says. “Sustainability professionals have a unique role to play in transitioning a business to a more sustainable way of thinking.”

Sustainable thinking

And the approach taken is ultimately what determines how successful any sustainability initiative will be, regardless of the size of the company involved, says O’Rouke.

“For a business of any size, unless the senior leadership is on board with endorsing sustainability as a part of the corporate agenda, it will be challenging.

“In my view, it shouldn’t matter whether a business is small or large, the success of a sustainability agenda will fundamentally come down to the company’s appetite for change and the person leading the agenda.”

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