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CSR in action

sanofi-aventis' Gilles Lhernould argues that industry needs to publicise its good works to a broader audience

The European pharmaceutical industry has made great strides in making Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a core business priority over the last decade. Our industry is frequently, albeit often unfairly, on the receiving end of criticism for its day-to-day corporate activities, so its positive CSR activities should be celebrated.

The challenge is to ensure that the industry does not rest on its laurels and uses its unique expertise and global reach for maximum impact, particularly in the developing world. Also, the industry must make sure that CSR remains at the heart of the industry and ensure that this fact is effectively communicated to key stakeholders.

Here, Gilles Lhernould, senior vice president corporate social responsibility at sanofi-aventis gives PME his views on current CSR strategies, programmes and challenges.

photo of Gilles Lhernould 

Gilles Lhernould, senior vice president corporate social responsibility, sanofi-aventis

What are the longstanding strengths in CSR enjoyed by the European pharmaceutical industry?
Access to medicines is one area where industry is certainly making its mark and enjoys an impressive heritage. Whilst clearly there is no room for complacency, significant progress is being made towards the health aspects of the Millennium Development Goals. October saw sanofi-aventis, as one of a number of stakeholders that are active in the fight against what are all too often neglected tropical diseases, extend its longstanding partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, Buruli ulcer and Chagas disease. Unfortunately, while sector professionals may be aware of such positive developments, this is often unknown in the wider community.
Do you think the European pharmaceutical industry is alone in the types of CSR challenges it faces?
Criticism is certainly not unique to our sector! The growing obesity crisis is frequently laid squarely at the door of food manufacturers, drinks companies and retailers. Equally, there are criticisms levelled at 'big business' across most industries, focusing particularly on environmental responsibility, whiie firms elsewhere in the supply chain know they will be judged on their choice of provider. As the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit approaches, with a high-level United Nations meeting scheduled for 2012, this environmental focus will only sharpen.

Increasingly, prospective employees give serious consideration to the CSR credentials of potential employers. This poses recruitment and retention challenges in the 'war for talent' with a possibility that gifted individuals will gravitate towards those companies perceived as the most responsible. What is more, we need to ensure that existing employees are engaged on an ongoing basis with companies' overarching CSR strategies if these are to succeed. Mechanisms that enable staff to put questions and make suggestions direct to senior management in this field can only be a good thing, serving both to empower them and further enhance their engagement.
How can the European pharmaceutical industry best address these challenges?
Sanofi-aventis is constantly striving to both improve environmental performance and enhance employee relations through our wide-ranging CSR programme, which also includes putting patients at the centre of the Group's business activities and ensuring that respect for the rules of ethics is at the heart of everything we do. No doubt, similar initiatives are being pursued in other industrial sectors and by many other companies in our own sector. I would argue that the industry needs to be ever more ambitious in setting exacting and transparent targets for itself, with the bar being raised sufficiently high to ensure that they are not just there to impress in annual reports. The increasing importance and impact of third party reporting nowadays, such as that conducted by Dow Jones, means that reducing organisations' environmental footprints, for example, is central to how businesses are perceived externally. Even ten years ago, this view simply did not exist. Similarly, one way in which companies might improve the perceptions external stakeholders have of them, virtually overnight, would be to make more of their global position papers publicly available.

What are the key future CSR challenges in your view?
While much work remains to be done by our sector in the areas of access to medicines and care of both the environment and our human capital, I would argue that it is the need to demonstrate how we are acting more ethically and transparently. That is the twin challenge rising fastest up the CSR agenda.
Could you provide some examples to help illustrate these challenges?
There are some good examples in the fields of access to medicines, product safety, clinical trials and counterfeit drugs.

Let me expand on each:
Access to medicines
There has long been a tension between facilitating product access for those in need while at the same time protecting intellectual property. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the health and development fields are vociferous in their criticism when they believe companies strike the wrong balance. Pharmaceutical companies understandably regard patent protection as essential to their futures. Without it, it would be impossible to sustain the investment necessary for innovation, which is the driving force in providing therapeutic solutions to patients' needs.

However, companies could think more flexibly about facilitating access to medicines, especially in developing countries, through the waiving of their rights under certain circumstances, as sanofi-aventis has started to do, in order to ensure that some of the most vulnerable populations enjoy better protection and thereby a considerably higher quality of life.

Product safety
Another point to make is that the mechanisms companies establish to measure the risk-benefit ratios of medicines or vaccines in the developing world are sometimes perceived as insufficient. Such perceptions can be unfair; in 2009, S-A, in partnership with the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), launched a pharmocovigilance study. It is the largest study ever conducted in sub-Saharan Africa into the safety and efficacy of our anti-malarial drug artesunate-amodaquine. With MMV's support, up to 20,000 patients in the Ivory Coast will be field-monitored over two years. The WHO has expressed its interest in formalising this programme as a Risk Management Plan - a first for this type of initiative. The challenge for industry now is to ensure the adoption of such initiatives in the developing world becomes the standard.
Clinical trials
In a similar vein, it is sometimes asserted that clinical trials are conducted in developing countries to lower ethical standards than might apply in the developed world. However, a number of independent review boards exist that specialise in advising on developing world projects. We are fortunate to have organisations like the Comité de Protection des Personnes (CPC) in Europe that are very effective in performing this function.

The time may have come for companies to submit all protocols, irrespective of where trials are conducted, to such independent bodies for review.
Counterfeit drugs
Concern about exposure to potentially dangerous products is understandably heightened following supply chain infiltration. Some pharmaceutical companies, including sanofi-aventis, have sought to fight counterfeiting by engaging more closely with relevant organisations at various levels. For example, the Cotonou Declaration, achieved in late 2009 under the auspices of the Chirac Foundation, has the halting of the trade in counterfeit drugs as a key objective.

Meanwhile, in order to combat the blight of counterfeit drugs, many companies also actively support the European Data Matrix project, the barcode system confirming a product is genuine from the time of manufacture to the moment of patient collection. The recommendation by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) to its members to adopt the Matrix is certainly an important step in the right direction and, in my view, one that I feel sure will receive ever more active support.

What other pressures should be taken into account by CSR professionals in the pharmaceutical sector?
Criticism levelled at all 'big business' inevitably influences the perceptions of political elites.  Business is, quite rightly, expected to act responsibly by these political elites, manifested in the UK, for example, by the arrival of so-called Responsibility Deals. Meanwhile, investment analysts regularly factor in the financial impact of businesses' CSR performance when evaluating the opportunities and risks that listed companies face. This further underlines the importance of our sector communicating effectively with these key stakeholder groups.
What are your concluding thoughts?
The pharmaceutical industry needs to continue adhering to best practice principles, but it may be that the sector could do still more to facilitate such sharing. If the examples offered here tell us anything, however, it is that what was once best practice must become simply standard practice.

Certainly, experience from other sectors suggests that the demands made on businesses to meet certain standards do not disappear once met: minimum expectations, if anything, simply increase.

What is more, and as we have seen, the pressure on companies to meet ever higher standards will come not just from the usual quarters, but from competitors, customers, the financial markets and even our own employees. That means CSR needs to keep advancing, and become even better at communicating the many positive stories the industry has to tell. One means of ensuring that those communications are trusted will be to promote companies' adoption of consistent methodologies, like the Global Reporting Initiative, for recording performance. It is also why third party measurement, such as that offered by the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes and endorsement through corporate responsibility awards, like the new one included in the Pharmaceutical Marketing Excellence Awards (PMEA), are so important.

As our chief executive officer Christopher A Viehbacher states, CSR is a critical part of sanofi-aventis' overall business strategy, not only because it drives our performance, but because it also serves to improve it by allowing us to minimise risks even further and encourages innovation. CSR provides us with the incentives to explore different healthcare options worldwide and turn to new therapeutic solutions that are tailored to meeting patients' needs, as well as contributing towards optimising our internal operations.

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19th January 2011


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