The White House Climate Pledge: Why Sustainability Makes Good Business Sense in Healthcare

The White House’s recent Health Sector Climate Pledge brought together hospitals and healthcare companies that committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. It is a long overdue effort to promote sustainability and combat climate change. The social, economic, and environmental impact of such initiatives are clear, but only a few companies in the healthcare industry have made this kind of commitment so far. This is likely due to the complexities and risks associated with drug development and manufacturing and pursuing new opportunities to drive positive change towards a more sustainable future.

In 2015, the United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2023 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG 3 calls for healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages, setting a high bar that is attainable but not yet a reality, as universal health coverage is not implemented everywhere.

The effects of climate change represent an additional danger for the health, safety, and quality of life of people all over the world, as evidenced by the recent heat waves plaguing the northern hemisphere. Extreme temperatures lead to more cases of heat stroke, which can be fatal or lead to chronic health issues. Changes in temperature and precipitation are elevating wildfires and ground-level ozone pollution, impacting air quality and increasing health risks. These environmental changes are expected to increase both exposure to waterborne and foodborne diseases and disease-causing insects and pests. The frequency and severity of allergic conditions, including asthma and hay fever, are also expected to increase due to air pollution resulting from climate change. We expect to see a further rise in global mean temperature, and the associated risks are expected to disproportionately affect vulnerable, elderly, and low-income populations.

Committing to Sustainability Practices in Healthcare

The White House’s Health Sector Climate Pledge is a call to action for organizations in the healthcare industry to take part in working to end climate change, the greatest threat to global public health. In addition to reducing their carbon footprint, participants commit to producing detailed plans to build climate resilience for their facilities and the communities they serve. For pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, it means rethinking the traditional research, development, and manufacturing processes.

I represent the third generation of my family to run Chiesi Group, a global bio-pharmaceutical company headquartered in Parma, Italy. Given our goal to have a positive and long-lasting impact on patients and society, we have committed to sustainability practices across the lifecycles of our products—from discovery to disposal. As an example, our sustainable chemistry policy allows us to responsibly manage chemical substances used for research and manufacturing activities with safeguards for the environment.

Additionally, we launched the “Code of Interdependence,” a code of conduct for vendors jointly developed with 70 of our strategic suppliers. The goal is to positively change the entire value chain. To this aim, we also recently introduced the “Responsible Investment and Partnership Policy” to ensure that the companies we partner with, invest in, or acquire also adhere to the SDG principles.

In the UK, we also launched a first-of-its-kind inhaler recycling program through which aluminum canisters are reused, plastic components are returned to the supply chain, and any remaining propellant gas is reused in electrical appliances.

The Benefits to Your Corporation

In 2019, we became a Certified Benefit Corporation, or B Corp as they are more commonly known. This designation requires companies to meet high standards of social and environmental impact, public transparency, and legal accountability. In the U.S., we are a Public Benefit Corporation. Nearly 40 states and Washington D.C. have adopted some form of benefit corporation legislation, with laws pending in several others. Beyond the dedication to social and environmental efforts that come with this designation, there are additional benefits with this corporation status.

For example, being a B Corp can be attractive for candidates, especially among younger generations who seek meaning and purpose in their careers. It contributes to a people-centric culture, which helps retain talent. This, in return, can increase business productivity. Research shows that focusing on the well-being of employees makes them happier, more engaged, and eager to improve their work. In fact, businesses with engaged workforces are 22% more profitable and twice as likely to succeed than businesses with less-engaged workforces.

Sustainability practices help generate economic value for industry stakeholders. In 2021, 74% of the economic value generated from Chiesi’s business was distributed to stakeholders other than capital providers, including suppliers, employees, collaborators, public administrations, and local communities. And 22.4% was reinvested in the company for future growth. In addition, pursuing sustainable development entails responsible consumption and production patterns, which imply careful revisions of a company’s practices and processes allowing savings and agility. Learnings from these experiences can be easily shared in the B Corp community, facilitating replication or adaptation of best practices.

B Corp status can also positively influence a company’s reputation among stakeholders including patients, clinicians, investors, industry partners, and employees. In just one example, more patients are paying attention to how their healthcare choices impact the environment. They can see how B Corp companies are committed to being transparent and are making a difference. This positively influences patient decisions to support or buy its products.

The Need for Change

In the end, drug development and production require significant natural, human, and economic resources, which may represent a risk to the environment and the sustainability of the industry. We can only address the unprecedented challenges the world is facing by adopting new behaviors, practices, and mindsets to direct positive change and improve the health and quality of life of people around the globe.

Being a B Corp or participating in initiatives such as the Health Sector Climate Pledge is not enough, but it is an important starting point. These actions are a stimulus for companies to adopt entirely new business philosophies that help guide decision-making processes towards sustainability.

These efforts require shared responsibility with key stakeholders, including governmental bodies, regulators, payers, healthcare institutions, other pharmaceutical companies, and advocacy organizations. Therefore, we will continue to collaborate with the White House, industry, and other partners to take action to drive positive change, and hopefully, make a difference while helping inspire others to become engaged for a more just and sustainable world.

  • Maria Paola Chiesi

    Maria Paola Chiesi is a Board Member and the Director of Shared Value and Sustainability at Chiesi Group, a sector that aims to measure and quantify the company’s impact on the society and the environment, define integrated improvement plans, and transparently report the environmental and societal performance. She is President of Chiesi Foundation, Founder and Vice President of the Regenerative Society Foundation, Founder and President of the consortium KilometroVerdeParma, a project of reforestation of the Parma province, and a member of the steering committee of the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

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