Sustainability in pharma

Betsy Goodfellow from Pharmafocus considers the need for sustainable practices in the pharma industry and assesses various sustainable advances that have already been made
Sustainability is defined as ‘the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’1 and has recently become a huge concern within the pharma and healthcare industries, as well as across countless other sectors worldwide. There are numerous reasons why this has become more important in recent years, from greater awareness around climate change and environmental degradation to social equity and ethical practices.2 It is an unavoidable fact that many standard practices of the pharma and healthcare industries have a negative impact on the planet and its environment, and this has led to increased pressure to improve sustainable practices.
But what do the pharma and healthcare industries specifically need to focus on to become more sustainable as part of this worldwide issue? According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the industry has plans ‘to address climate change as an urgent health challenge [following] COP28, including through the agreement of the first ever Declaration on Climate and Health’.3 Many pharma companies are expected to set ambitious net-zero and carbon-neutrality targets, following a great deal of investment, research and development into more environmentally friendly and sustainable products, processes and supply chains.3 It is also expected that this goal will lead to an increased level of collaboration between the industry, governments and healthcare systems.3 These collaborations already include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Alliance for Action on Climate Change and Health (ATACH) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but further work is required from governments, civil society and the private sector.3 All of these groups will need to be in agreement as to their specific role in the development of more sustainable practices and products before real change can be made.
As well as increasing industry collaboration, this ambitious move towards carbon-neutrality and sustainability has been observed in individual pharma companies and the development of their products. For example, Mundipharma and Vectura have announced plans to reformulate their Flutiform (fluticasone propionate/formoterol fumarate) pressurised metered-dose inhaler (pMDI), in order to attempt to reduce the product’s carbon footprint.4 This involves a collaboration between the two companies in order to continue the pMDI’s development, specifically in order to utilise an environmentally friendly propellant into its formulation. 4 Currently, it uses the approved apaflurane hydrofluoroalkane 227 (HFA-227) as its propellant, despite this being a type of fluorinated greenhouse gas – there are EU regulations aiming to reduce their use and subsequently their emissions by two-thirds by 2030.4 Research into more environmentally alternatives to this propellant is already underway. This inhaler is just one example of an existing product being adapted to become more sustainable, however more pharma companies need to begin reconsidering their portfolios to see where they can increase their sustainability.
In addition, some pharma companies have made it known that sustainability and protecting the environment is part of their ethos. GSK has an environment page on its website detailing its goals to have a net zero impact on the environment and how it intends to contribute to a positive world.5 In order to achieve this goal, GSK has set the following targets:
• ‘100% imported renewable electricity by 2025 and 100% renewable electricity (imported and generated) by 2030 (Scope 2)
• 80% absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from a 2020 baseline, across all scopes and investment in nature-based solutions for the remaining 20% of our footprint by 2030
• Net zero greenhouse gas emissions across our full value chain by 2045: 90% absolute reduction in emissions from a 2020 baseline, across all scopes and all residual emissions neutralised’.5
In addition, Emma Walmsley, GSK’s chief executive officer, has commented on the company’s sustainability goals: “As a global biopharma leader, we want to play our full part in protecting and restoring the planet’s health, in order to protect and improve people’s health. Improving the environmental sustainability of our business makes us more resilient, so we can deliver the products that patients rely on.”5
It is also thought that climate change and damage to the environment will have a negative impact on human health, so adapting medicine to become more sustainable can be mutually beneficial in the long term. Sustainable clinical care can include:
• ‘Preventative measures
• Empowering patients and teaching them to care for themselves
• Creating lean systems
• Providing low-carbon alternatives’.6
These measures are intended to create a healthcare system that is more resilient and can sustain change. One example of a change facing healthcare systems is the adoption of telemedicine.6
Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought this change around more quickly than anticipated, it nowmeansconsultationscanbeconductedoverthe internet or phone, predominantly in non-critical cases, which often reduces waste or resources used when patients visit physical clinics.6 Many sustainable medicine practitioners are focusing on reducing waste, promoting preventative care, increasing sustainability in doctor-patient relationships and developing more efficient and environmentally sustainable treatments, such as Mundipharma and Vectura’s reduced carbon pMDI.6 Another benefit of sustainable medicine is that it also aims to improve access to care through the expansion of healthcare coverage and making it more affordable to more patients, specifically in countries without universal healthcare systems like the UK’s NHS.6 It is likely that ‘by working to address the environmental, social and economic impacts of healthcare, sustainable medicine can create a more sustainable and equitable healthcare system’.6
Overall, it is evident that sustainability is a huge part of all aspects of life and all industries in 2024, however the pharma and medical industries still have a long way to go. Countless standard practices and products in these areas are negatively impacting the environment, so it is crucial that changes are made, from adapting existing products to developing new sustainable options.