4 Ways to Create a More Sustainable Pharma Brand
By Vince Schaller

While every industry is facing the challenges of becoming more sustainable, pharmaceutical companies in particular face many barriers: Manufacturing operations use high levels of energy. Single-use packaging that meets strict safety criteria is a must. And the chemistry used in developing and manufacturing drugs is not sustainable, with the chemicals often becoming pollutants. It’s a lot to contend with.


Add to this the perception that the pharma industry isn’t doing enough to be sustainable. A recent Verdict poll suggests that 43% of respondents think environmental sustainability is a top area of concern that must be addressed by the pharma industry.

So how do you address the demand for a more sustainable pharma brand?

You must look beyond just your packaging and build a sustainable brand from the ground up. It means innovating everything from your manufacturing to your brand positioning and messaging to strive for a circular supply chain.

1. Environmental Manufacturing
The first step in building a sustainable brand is making sure products are being manufactured as sustainably as possible. Pharmaceuticals are a major global polluter, generating greenhouse gas emissions approximately 55% greater than that of the automotive industry.

One way to combat the pollution generated is by looking for ways to make the manufacturing process greener. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications are one way to do this. LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world and provides a framework for highly efficient, cost-saving green buildings. With large amounts of energy being used in manufacturing operations, pharmaceutical companies are turning to LEED certification to independently verify that a building’s design, construction, operations, and maintenance are resource efficient.

For example, in 2017 Pfizer opened the first LEED-NC Platinum certified pharmaceutical factory in the world at its factory in Dalian, China. The building uses system automations, smart energy management platforms, wastewater collection, and high-efficiency lighting and solar equipment. The results have been significant: savings in water (45%), energy (35%) and cost (28%). And beyond LEED-certified buildings, there are other innovative options for achieving more sustainable operations. Green vehicles for transportation, the use of green power, and carbon offsets can help limit the overall environmental impact of production. In addition, properly caring for water resources, such as using the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s framework for water usage and wastewater management, can have a significant impact on the sustainability of your operations.

2. Green Chemistry
Beyond your manufacturing processes and energy consumption, pharma brands must also consider the chemicals that go into medical products. When developing and producing drugs, waste should be minimized, the use of hazardous substances should be decreased, and there should be a focus on the safety of the workers and environment.


To ensure these factors are being considered, the term “green chemistry” was developed in the late 1990s, and the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (ACSGCI) pharmaceutical roundtable was formed. Since then, the organization has done tremendous research on how to prevent waste, design safer chemicals, and use renewable feedstock.

ACSGCI has invented many processes, design tools, and metrics along the way such as the Process Mass Intensity Prediction Calculator, which tracks waste generated per kilogram of active pharmaceutical ingredient produced. Today, the calculator includes a streamlined lifecycle assessment. They have also produced guides and interactive tools to help select the most appropriate solvents and reagents.

Another concern to be addressed is pharmaceutical chemicals ending up in the environment, known as “pharmaceuticals in the environment” (PIE). This can happen in two fundamental ways: they can be excreted by patients who are taking drugs, or they can be waste from the formulation and manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients. Technology surrounding environmental chemistry detection is still in the works, but chemicals are likely to be detected in groundwater, soil, and sediment. This issue, which can lead to poor public perception of pharmaceutical companies and their brands, means that a more proactive approach to tracking chemistry and developing green practices is best for the longevity of your brands.


3. Packaging Design and Materials
With green manufacturing and chemistry efforts underway, its important to remember the long-term impacts of your packaging on the environment. Due to the many regulations within the pharmaceutical industry regarding the safety of packaging, it is challenging for companies to be innovative in their design and makeup. Packages containing medicine must be tamper resistant and most products must be thrown away after a single use. Reusing or refilling is oftentimes not an option, where in other industries, it is an easy solution to single-use packaging.

But there are other avenues that you can pursue, especially when it comes to innovating new packaging materials. Polyolefin laminate packaging is one example that has been developed. It is 70% recyclable and includes a range of unit dose packaging for solid pharmaceutical products. Although many may assume cost would be a barrier, when using these high-tech materials, it is projected that adopting this packaging can lower the packaging-associated costs faced by a pharmaceutical company by up to 60%, as it requires significantly less raw materials than conventional blister packaging.


Bioplastic is also likely to gain traction in the market as it is derived from renewable plant-based sources and is biodegradable, unlike the plastics and polymers derived from fossil fuels. In December 2019, Sanner GmbH, a Germany-based packaging manufacturer, introduced Bio Base effervescent tablet packaging derived from corn and sugarcane. Innovative sustainable packaging solutions such as these are expected to boost the growth of the market.

Beyond packaging, reducing the add-ons that go with pharmaceuticals can make a positive impact on waste. For example, digitizing paper pamphlets can both reduce paper waste and meet consumers where they currently look for information: on the web. Taking a page from CPGs may be helpful here as connected packaging has become the norm. Either through digital watermarks on their pack or QR codes, they link to product education, directions, or ingredients, to lessen the overall physical packaging components. This provides a viable option for a more sustainable pharmaceutical brand.


But with innovation comes questions for consideration, especially since the pharmaceutical industry is so unique from other industries. How will the older generation react to connected pack, and will they know how to use the technology? How would product information be made accessible to the visually impaired who read Braille? There are many audiences heavily involved in pharma that could be greatly affected by changes such as these. And you can’t just market to consumers but to healthcare providers as well. How can we get doctors on board with less paperwork and more digital information? Implementing innovative packaging is feasible, but companies must not forget about their key audiences, and all parties involved.

4. Recycling Networks
Once your product is produced and packaged, pharma companies must also consider the environmental impact of your overall supply chain, from transportation to distribution to disposal. Demand for OTC medicine is rising, which means single-use plastic packaging is rising as well. This single-use packaging also tends to come in small sizes, colored plastic, is multi-layered, has compositional components for safety, and includes shrink wraps. None of these materials are easily recycled.


Currently, OTC packaging ends up in a landfill or is incinerated, losing their value as a material resource. Reckitt Benckiser, makers of popular consumer brands Mucinex, Enfamil and Airborne, is one of the latest conglomerates to work with Terra Cycle on solving this recycling problem through the Healthy You, Healthy Planet partnership. It is a recycling program that allows retail stores, colleges, gyms, and other organizations to sign up as a public drop-off site and build up the recycling network for products that are normally non-recyclable.

Brands must continue to think about not only innovative recycling methods but upcycling as well and repurposing materials. Novo Nordisk has innovated a way to repurpose their insulin pens. Although insulin pens are composed of 77% plastic, it cannot be thrown into plastic recycling bins and must be thrown away in general waste. To give the pens a second life and prevent them from ending up in a landfill, Novo developed a system that sorts the insulin pens’ m any parts. From there, they were able to partner with a Danish design firm to make office chairs with the discarded plastic and lamps from the discarded glass insulin vials.

To implement this project on a large scale, a “take-back” recycling program must be established to get the insulin pens back from consumers after use. Consumers play a key role in the lifecycle of these products and must be committed to act alongside manufacturers. Once companies can build a sustainable brand from the ground up and create a transparent and circular supply chain from start to finish of a product’s life cycle, it will become easier to use sustainability as a competitive advantage. Companies that can accomplish this can create an entire brand strategy around green messaging and can unlock new connections to consumers.


About Vince Schaller
Vince has over 25 years of marketing and advertising leadership for clients in healthcare and commercial industry segments. Vince currently leads the global business practice for SGK Health helping clients build thriving content ecosystems driving growth for clients.