AstraZeneca: pharma needs to lead by example on sustainability

Paul Tunnah sat down with AstraZeneca’s vice president of sustainability strategy and engagement Jim Massey to discuss how the global pharma company is embracing a green future.

There has been a growing interest in and focus on sustainability in the consumer world. How has this topic impacted the pharmaceutical industry and where do you see this heading?

Sustainability at AstraZeneca is about using our capabilities to make the most meaningful impact where society needs it – health. We believe there’s a strong connection between the health of our business, people and the planet, and each of these impacts the others. As a global company, we seek to leverage our reach, scale and expertise to effect change in a range of sustainability issues. We can’t achieve our sustainability objectives alone however, so we need joined-up action between multiple stakeholders.

What drew you to work in the sustainability area and what advice would you give to anyone considering a move into sustainability in pharma?

I came to sustainability from compliance where the focus was on governance and the need to do the right thing. That was a natural pathway into sustainability because this is now the right thing that we need to do, and I feel a sense of urgency. We need leaders who are ready for change to come into sustainability and my advice would be, don’t hesitate – act now for the sake of the planet. It’s that simple.

Consumers are increasingly vocal around their expectations for brands to act on sustainability issues. What level of demand have you seen from healthcare professionals, patients and other stakeholder groups in healthcare?

“We need to address inequalities in access to healthcare and survival rates in different parts of the world”

We actively seek stakeholders’ input to help us refine our approach to supporting communities in improving health. Working with an independent consultancy, we did an extensive materiality assessment in 2018 which identified 16 priority material issues which helped us to sharpen our focus. It was clear from the more than 2,000 responses – from our employees as well as external stakeholders – that there’s a strong expectation for companies to act on sustainability in areas as diverse as disease prevention and treatment, product environmental stewardship, and workforce well-being.

What do you see as the biggest barriers and opportunities with respect to sustainability in the pharmaceutical industry?

It’s clear from the commentary on our industry that we have work to do to increase trust. At AstraZeneca, we approach this by working in partnership across all our stakeholder groups, on a transparent basis with open dialogue. We also need to address inequalities in access to healthcare and survival rates in different parts of the world, as well as the environmental factors that are affecting human health. The health of the planet is inextricably linked to people’s health. That means tackling global issues outside our industry on a multi-stakeholder basis through institutions such as the UN. This is a major challenge but one we need to embrace.

We do have a huge opportunity to operate on a more sustainable basis within healthcare and recognise the wide range of factors that contribute to health. These range from promoting prevention and supporting healthcare infrastructures, to developing our innovative pipeline and making medicines available, as well as ensuring that we operate in an environmentally sensitive manner – all on a sustainable basis. We also need to plan for the future, delivering sustainable growth and making decisions with the long term in mind. 

How would you describe your progress so far and what initiative are you most proud of?

We’re driven by science and that also means having science-based targets. For example, in managing our carbon emissions we’ve had the targets from our operations confirmed by the Science Based Targets initiative as aligned with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. We’ve made clear commitments in areas such as switching to renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, through joining The Climate Group’s RE100 and EV100 initiatives.

We’re not complacent and our work is by no means done yet – as mentioned, this is for the long term, but at the same time the urgency is there to take action. I’m personally proudest of the work we do that directly affects people’s lives – for example, the prevention programmes I’ve seen in operation in Africa, our life-saving medicines, and the work on diversity and inclusion that means we’re making a reality of being a great place to work for all of our employees.

How do you measure your progress against sustainability targets?

We measure our contribution to society by connecting our company targets to the 17 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, particularly the six SDGs that are related most closely to our core business of health, namely: good health and well-being; gender equality; decent work and economic growth; responsible consumption and production; climate action; and partnership for the goals.

How is your internal culture adapting to the company’s focus on sustainability?

Embedding sustainability into the way we work has some obvious benefits for our employees in areas such as workforce well-being and inclusion and diversity. We’re also using our internal communication channels and ways of working to come together as one global team through crowdsourcing on strategy initiatives and priorities, as well as day-to-day sustainability conversations, actions and sharing of best practices.

One of our strategic priorities is to be a great place to work, and leading in sustainability is one of our strategic goals, alongside making a difference to medicine and patients. This requires leadership from the top and an enterprise mindset which does challenge some ways of working, but it’s what our employees want to see.

There are also elements of employee activism that I love to see, where initiatives take off and we get feedback and input at a very local level on global challenges. Our employees expect us to be leading in sustainability – we’ve had that message loud and clear. 

What are your ambitions for AstraZeneca in sustainability over the next ten years?

I want us to contribute to the SDGs being met by 2030. I hope, as a company, we’ll have inspired all our stakeholders to join us, and to look past 2030 to lead and establish a sustainable future for the next hundred years.

This article was originally published on Hall & Partners’ website as part of the Sustain campaign.