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Opinion: Pharma’s new sustainability vision

By   /   Sunday, December 6th, 2020  /   Comments Off on Opinion: Pharma’s new sustainability vision

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By Valeria Makarova

The world is still struggling with how to balance health and safety precautions with economic considerations in the fight against COVID-19.

The worrisome news about returning to restrictions or complete lockdown keeps popping up from every corner. During these difficult times, we are all closely watching the pharmaceutical companies’ race with time in their progress with development of COVID vaccines and cures.

The public expectations for the pharmaceutical sector are sky-high, as the economic recovery may not be possible to achieve until we are in possession of effective therapeutics to combat the pandemic. Notable progress is indeed being made in pharma’s research labs in several different countries, including the U.S. Every time the promising results of
vaccine trials are reported, reputable business outlets and consultancies develop optimistic scenarios for economic recovery that are closely tied to the anticipated vaccines’ production and rollout schedules.

Even after effective cures are eventually found, it will take a lot of time and effort to mitigate the pandemic’s negative impacts, which have affected us on so many levels. The current crisis once again emphasized how closely our social, environmental and industrial systems are interconnected and how interdependent they are.

Triple-bottom-line accountability, also known as “profit-people-planet,” is the only way to ensure longterm human well-being as we go forward. This approach—when any economic activity is assessed not only from the profitability perspective, but also by simultaneously evaluating whether social value is created and ensuring that no harm is done to the natural environment—should become a new norm.

The conversation about corporate responsibility and sustainability has been ongoing for many years, and the current health crisis added unmistakable urgency to the debate. As a critically important player, pharma is being perceived as the best hope in this extremely challenging current situation. Given its prominent role, there is an exciting opportunity for this industry to contribute to developing the broader vision of a sustainable healthy future.

As we battle through the pandemic that has shaken and challenged many traditional business models, society will hold businesses even more accountable for their social and environmental impacts. When it comes to the sustainability agenda, over the past decade pharma’s focus has been predominantly set on social goals, for obvious reasons. Pharma’s core business is to develop and produce cures, and hence providing access
to medicine for populations has been a central part of its corporate responsibility agenda.

However, the environmental aspect is increasing in prominence these days as more and more people start seeing a strong connection between maintaining a clean planet and the health of the world population. Energy use, greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change, usage of water that has become a scarce resource in many world regions, and waste reduction and management are just a few issues that call for greater attention and innovative solutions to be applied through the entire industry supply chain.

Another important issue is the impact of disposed pharmaceuticals on ecosystems. As the pharmaceutical sector continues to grow in order to meet the demand for medicines by the global population, the importance
of improving environmental performance will only increase with time.

Many pharmaceutical companies recognize the importance of building sustainability strategies. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations provide a great framework for the corporate responsibility agenda and have been used by pharma for setting social and environmental goals.

As we go forward, people will continue to pressure pharma to take more and more responsibility for externalities and will expect this crucially important sector to evolve by changing the paradigm from producing drugs to preserving health.

• Valeria Makarova is an assistant professor and director of teaching effectiveness in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.

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