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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

The march to sustainability

How sustainability can be achieved within the pharma sector and the critically important role of the communicator


I was recently asked to name who I thought had used PR well in 2019 and was surprised to find myself writing Greta and Greggs in the same sentence.

If there was one unequivocal thing that marked 2019, it was the thrusting of climate change onto the world population’s radar. Now I am not saying that there hadn’t been significant debate prior, but the magnitude in 2019, catalysed or exemplified (whichever way you view it) by a young woman from Sweden, was exceptional.

The recent Davos economic summit majored on sustainability as the direction of travel for economies, even if there was variation between nations in the degree. Even Trump, despite his tirade against the ‘prophets of doom‘, still committed to join the World Economic Forum’s initiative to plant, restore and conserve a trillion trees.

So hopefully we can all agree that doing something is better than doing nothing, whatever view we take on the direness of the climate situation.

The Healthcare Communications Association, supported by Cello Health and sustainability communication specialists Forster Communications, has recently been working with pharma industry communicators to consider how sustainability can be achieved within the sector and the critically important role of the communicator.

Companies are certainly on very differing paths in terms of successfully implementing sustainability at the heart of their business and aligning them with overall business objectives. Sustainability is also a word we now hear used a lot. But how it is interpreted may also vary considerably.

Defining sustainability

The most universally accepted definition of sustainability came from the United Nations as long ago as 1982: sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It is suggested that there are now three pillars for a ‘healthy bottom line’ for any business: environmental protection, economic growth and social equity.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) vs Sustainability

The pharma industry has a strong history in CSR. Examples include not-for-profit drug development, drug donation schemes and aid and skills donation, to name a few. But how does CSR fit with sustainability?

To me, CSR has historically been doing good while at the same time being a successful or profitable business. In essence, ‘giving back’. Sustainability, conversely, should be viewed as integral to achieving business success.

Sustainability brings commercial advantage in the short and long term while also helping to meet the growing demands on an organisation to do good, and meet and solve increasing social and environmental issues and pressures. Sustainability is forward-looking. You might therefore argue CSR activity is one component of sustainability.

How does a business become sustainable?

The answer here is that sustainability needs to reach every aspect. Strategically, every part of the business should set, communicate and report KPIs that measure sustainability goals. Sustainability needs to be embedded into the organisation’s culture.

Employees are an organisation’s most important resource and are therefore integral to communicating and achieving sustainability goals. They need to consider the environmental, economic and social impact of every one of their actions.

Partnerships are important to help corporations achieve their sustainability goals, and sustainable suppliers and service providers will play an important role in supporting ever-increasing sustainability demands.

What are the benefits of sustainability for pharma?

There are many, all of which will underpin future business success. For example, investors and shareholders are increasingly considering sustainability in their investment choices.

In recruiting the best talent, current and importantly future employees will consider an organisation’s sustainability credentials as a barometer for their choice of employer.

Of course, pharma itself is a supplier to healthcare systems, financed by governments that themselves are making sustainable commitments. How long before we start to see sustainability as an established procurement criteria? Could sustainable solutions deliver competitive advantage in the same way we have traditionally tried to differentiate on drug presentation or delivery?

And in this we are not talking about in the future; it’s already happening – in the UK, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit has been around since 2008.

The communicator’s role

Communicators have the potential to play a critical role in achieving organisational sustainability as champions, strategists and implementors. This also provides the opportunity to help propel the status of communications within an organisation.

But where does a communicator start? The pharma industry communicators we have been working with have helped develop a starting road map for colleagues to use.

Each scenario will be unique, but this framework will hopefully allow communicators to understand how to start considering their role and the steps they can take within their organisations on the march to sustainability.

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and a communications consultant

27th March 2020

From: Marketing


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