• Estimated read time: 5 mins
  • Date posted:04/08/2021
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By James Geens

Like many other industries, the life sciences have a key role to play in reducing global emissions. The unsustainable practices involved in creating life-saving drugs and treatments is often overlooked because of its global impact on our health.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) defines sustainability as the process of using resources in a way that does not compromise the environment or deplete materials for future generations.

Unsustainability begins in the drug development stage where laboratories use almost ten times the energy of an office building. This follows through into the manufacturing process in which a large amount of power and water is utilised. The supply chain also contributes a significant amount of carbon emissions from transporting pharmaceuticals and chemicals across the world.

But with governmental pressure, regulations and increased awareness of the environment thanks to the global pandemic, there’s never been more interest in sustainability in the life sciences.

So, what are life sciences companies doing to become more sustainable?

Carbon neutrality and net-zero

Some of the biggest pharma brands have all made progressive pledges with 2030 in mind; AstraZeneca wants to become carbon negative, Novartis had pledged to become carbon neutral and GSK are committed to being net-zero. Takeda even achieved carbon neutrality in 2020, a significant milestone in its commitment to become carbon zero by 2040.

Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by balancing emissions of carbon dioxide with its removal or eliminating emissions from society.

According to Deloitte, for the life sciences industry, this would involve prioritising “suppliers that have zero-carbon landfill policies, recycle waste and water use, and use sustainable materials in packaging and parts.”

But pledging to be carbon neutral does not equate to reversing past damage. It’s integral that companies don’t slip back into old habits but maintain carbon neutrality and even convert that into being carbon positive.

Putting sustainability into practice

I was curious to identify what life sciences companies are doing to champion sustainability and carbon neutrality.

Conchita Jimenez-Gonzalez, R&D (Environment, Health & Safety) EHS and Sustainability Lead at GSK said:

“To achieve the goals GSK has set, we have implemented a number of specific targets across the operations and supply chain to reduce our environmental impact. Some examples are the commitment to move to 100% renewable energy and transition 100% of our sales fleet to low emission vehicles. Some other activities include our energy reduction program, incorporating green chemistry and engineering principles into medicine development, and working with our suppliers to reduce our environmental footprint.”

Some sustainability plans can be made overnight, others may take years to implement.

Addressing the challenge

So, despite the progress from a few companies, why are the life sciences still the biggest polluting industry? What challenges are they coming up against and how do we combat them?

Conchita Jimenez-Gonzalez said:

“Challenges include maintaining the alignment and focus across the enterprise and channelling the energy of all the stakeholders. We have set governance forums and specific workstreams to help us with that. There are also technical challenges that one encounters in driving sustainability with scientists and engineers working to overcome these as part of the workstreams.

I think a lot of the time, the problem regarding environmental sustainability and carbon emissions seems so far away. When we talk about the consequences, such as rising sea levels, melting ice caps and droughts, a lot of us know that it’s not going to affect us tomorrow. Although we’re already witnessing the impact in low-income communities and developing countries, it’s likely going to be decades before it directly impacts us and the world as we know it. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges when it comes to getting buy-in in the corporate world.

It’s evident from Conchita’s statement above that GSK have put in place processes and procedures to ensure that sustainability is at front of mind for all staff, including in the executive leadership team.

Unfortunately for a lot of companies, this isn’t always the case though.

Is there a seat at the table?

If there’s a lack of buy-in from C-suite executives, then it’s also fairly rare to see a Sustainability professional with a ‘seat at the table’.

According to EHS Today, a seat at the executive level would allow sustainability professionals “to play a more critical role in shaping their company’s business strategy and to positively impact profits, reputation and operational practices”.

Without a seat at the executive table, then the company is not able to benefit from this expertise and knowledge.

Conchita Jimenez-Gonzalez said:

“At GSK, the executive team are actually very engaged and interested in the company to have ambitious targets and deliver on them”.

This comes as no surprise from GSK, due to their commitment to becoming net-zero as we explored earlier.

A Senior Director in Sustainability said:

“Sustainability professionals need to be reporting into the CEO/COO to be properly strategic and implement change. They need to be leaders in their own right, to integrate and embed sustainability into how you do businesses so that everyone is working towards the same, common goal.”

It’s clear that sustainability can’t just stop at middle management. As the Senior Director quite rightly said above, it’s leaders with a seat at the table who have the power and respect from the top-down to implement real and positive change.

Reputation is everything

You don’t have to look far to see unsustainable brands coming under the line of fire. Most notably in the retail world, fast fashion brands like Boohoo have dropped in profits once the extent of their unsustainable and unethical practices became public knowledge.

The life sciences industry must take note. Now that people are becoming more aware of pharma brands thanks to their increased exposure in the pandemic, the stakes are higher. One inquiry or negative article about unsustainability and the industry could see backlash that no good PR campaign could help them come back from.

61% of consumers say they’d be less likely to buy a product if the company had bad environmental practices and 81% believe their consumer choices have an impact on the environment. While prescription drugs might be safe, it’s easy for consumers to boycott over the counter medicine and even COVID-19 vaccines if they think they are contributing to damaging the environment. Can you imagine the profit losses pharma would face?

And so if the life sciences haven’t realised it just yet, reputation is everything. If the power is with the consumer and most consumers are conscious of sustainability, then the life sciences must change their ways.


Just this year we have seen record-breaking snowfall in Madrid, record temperatures in Moscow as well as the horrendous recent flash flooding in Germany; to remind us that the ongoing damage being caused is not just going to affect us in future but is doing so right now.

Having spoken to professionals at the likes of Takeda, GSK, Charles River Laboratories and Danaher; we can see some of the industry leaders are investing in this space. It is often thought that executives are reluctant to place sustainability core to their company’s business strategy as a result of costs outweighing the benefits. However, as discussed throughout this article it is quite the contrary!

Industry frontrunners are designing models that create value for all stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, supply chains and the planet. Not just that, organisations with a sustainability agenda are better situated to anticipate and react to social, environmental, economic and regulatory changes as they arise.

Investors can now track ESG high performers and are correlating improved financial performance with a better ESG score. This accumulation of evidence further enforces that sustainability is becoming mainstream. Executives can no longer afford to provide lip service or approach sustainability as a ‘nice to have’. Companies that prioritise sustainability and embrace it as core to the business strategy will drive innovation and loyalty from employees, customers, suppliers and investors.

I suppose the question now is, what is holding you back from bringing sustainability professionals into the conversation at the top level, and what can be done to speed up this process?

For more life science insights…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.