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Tara Dougal
15 Feb 2022

Emissions down and profits up: how can biopharma be more sustainable?

Due to its sustainable energy concept, the Vetter center for visual inspection and logistics has been granted the “factory of the future” award

The biopharma industry drives development of complex therapies which improve the health outcomes and quality of life of patients across the globe. It is however a significant contributor to environmental waste and emissions as a direct result of it's manufacturing operations, an impact which the industry is increasingly looking to combat. 

CPHI spoke with Henryk Badack, Senior Vice President Technical Service and Internal Project Management at Vetter Pharma-Fertigung GmbH & Co. KG, on biopharma's environmental impact, and the steps organisations can take to both enable sustainable practices which reduce emissions and drive profits.

Henryk Badack, Senior Vice President Technical Service and Internal Project Management at Vetter Pharma-Fertigung GmbH & Co. KG


With many big pharma and biopharma organisations now implementing formal programmes to become carbon neutral as early as 2030, how do you see the industry 'greening' and evolving?

Over the last few years, our industry has become increasingly aware of the fact that we have a significant carbon footprint. Thus, a growing number of organisations have made sustainability a primary goal for their operations. Most companies have already been taking innovative steps toward reducing emissions, including renewable energy, new wastewater strategies and sustainable packing options. All of which make a valuable contribution to sustaining our environment. On the regulatory front, initiatives like the EU’s “Green Deal,” set a goal to be the ‘world’s first climate-neutral continent’ by 2050, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than half until 2030. Such initiatives have a direct impact on our industry and further motivate companies to actively adopt a culture of environmental consciousness, seeking new ways to balance economic performance, social responsibility, and ecological impact.

As these sustainability initiatives continue to grow in scale and ambition, our industry will continue to evolve. Supply chain partners, for example, will continue to see this trend reflected in RFPs. Biopharmaceutical companies will continue to seek partnerships that advance both their business and sustainability goals – whether that is through eco-conscious packaging design, carbon-neutral manufacturing facilities, or optimized operational processes. Therefore, companies must determine how new customer requirements can be effectively mapped to validated processes as well as adopt their own culture of ecological responsibility.

Moving forward into 2022 and beyond, partners who swiftly and successfully “green” their operations and mindset will increasingly set themselves apart. They will do this not only by growing the value of their services, but also by demonstrating their commitment to shared societal well-being and environmental health. As biopharma companies, suppliers, and CDMOs continue working together toward these goals, we can expect to see an increasingly green value chain taking shape in the coming years.

What sustainability challenges are specific to the biopharma industry? How does this differ to the small molecule sector?

The biopharma industry is a rewarding and meaningful industry to work. We are responsible for developing lifesaving therapies and medicines that improve quality of life for millions of patients around the globe. However, the very nature of our business means we face significant sustainability challenges as a result of our operations. This is of particular importance because while we manufacture critical medications, their production is resource intensive, regardless of molecule size. Manufacturing in the biopharma industry requires a great deal of energy-intensive operations including automated air circulation and a high water and electricity usage. Also, the required high standards and strict, ever-increasing regulations by healthcare authorities make it difficult to entirely avoid residual emissions. As such, we strive to achieve a delicate balance – meeting strict regulatory requirements whilst enabling environmentally friendly resource management that contributes to meeting the EU climate goal, and enabling a healthy planet for future generations.

What do the long-term implications of environmental sustainability (or lack thereof) mean for companies in the biopharma industry?

For many companies in our industry, achieving an efficient contribution to the sustainability effort is paramount. And, while this will require some investment, it will help ensure long-term, stable growth and profits. One reason for this is because pharma and biotech companies are now actively looking for responsible and transparent partners that have similar principles and a common approach to core issues. Increasingly, the requirement to be environmentally sustainable is a key metric of the overall decision matrix when deciding with whom to partner. Environmental sustainability is not just for today but for our future generations. Our responsibility as an industry towards individuals and society alike are inseparably linked.

Do you believe sustainability has a role to play in innovation? 

The healthcare industry is subject to continuous change. This includes adapting to customer and patient requirements. Production processes are getting more and more complex which goes together with ever-increasing highly sensitive molecules. Furthermore, the regulatory requirements rise steadily. As such, keeping pace with future challenges in this rapidly changing market means innovation is essential to our industry and sustainability plays an important role.

Today, numerous pharma and biotech companies and their associated partners are taking innovative steps toward change due to their sustainability goals. A valuable contribution is being made towards reduced emissions, and there are many other ways that sustainability drives innovative companies. By implementing dedicated sustainability initiatives, important structures and processes can be created that range from the nomination of environmental management officers to modern working conditions, efficient production processes and advanced waste recycling. By continuously monitoring energy consumption, companies can identify various options for improvement. For example, in the popular field of digitalization, many outcomes arising from this process contribute to its sustainability, ranging from digitalizing former paper-based processes to reducing global travel for executives in favour of virtual options.

Being a sustainable organisation is not always a matter of adopting highly sophisticated technologies to drive change. As an example, companies can also take steps such as encouraging staff to adopt more sustainable means of transportation for their commute. At Vetter, for example, we have invested in highly innovative bicycle parking facilities and cooperate with a local energy supplier on renting electronic bicycles. Thus, staff members can quickly commute between corporate sites in a resource-friendly way. They can also charge their electric vehicles at work with electricity from hydropower. And, in cooperation with a national bicycle leasing initiative, we offer employees attractive leasing conditions when acquiring a new bicycle.

Achieving sustainability need not always be high-tech: For example, offering staff members access to alternative mobility concepts with modern bicycle parks and e-power charging stations.

How can companies be encouraged to integrate sustainability into long-term business strategies? 

Successful companies with reputations to maintain are expected to not only be financially stable, but also socially responsible. There is now an expectation that companies will act in a sustainable manner, doing all that they can to reduce their environmental impact. That means using natural resources whenever possible, meeting high ethical standards and adopting a culture of responsibility.

That is why it is important that companies make every effort to live within the earth's natural restrictions and accept the boundaries and limitations of its ecosystem. Developing and producing medications for our international customers and ultimately for patients around the world is the business we are in, but it is innovation that will ultimately keep our industry going and moving forward.

What resources are needed to progress sustainability in biopharma?

In our opinion, it is essential to find new ways of putting existing technologies to the test – rethinking and utilising them to the best of their advantage. This begins with an idea or an invention which is then subject to research, creativity, discipline, and consistent ongoing development before being market ready. Digitization, for example, plays a role where it clearly and comprehensibly leads to quality or process improvements. Factory processes of the future, or ‘Industry 4.0’, must also take priority. Artificial Intelligence methods can support the factories of tomorrow through predictive maintenance, data analysis or intelligent worker-assistance systems. In addition, automation can also be used for suitable processes in the future - recurring, clearly definable or time-intensive activities can be carried out using robotics.

Within the industry, innovations are advanced at all corporate levels, both across business divisions as well as within individual departments. An open organisation focusing on resources and goals forms the foundation of an innovative company culture.

In addition to a good organisational structure and close orientation to the market, it is also important to have an awareness of emerging trends among staff members and the company at large. Innovative action requires business acumen because innovation requires investment as well as implementation. As the development and manufacture of medication becomes increasingly complex and competitive, future-facing companies must apply resources toward innovative solutions to keep pace.

With investors increasingly looking for evidence of ESG initiatives, where should companies who are yet to establish a framework start?

Start with the harmonization of three pillars -- social, ecological, and economic. While some investment will be necessary to achieve this, over the long-term the company will not only grow in a stable manner, but profit as well since pharma and biotech companies are more often looking for responsible partners that think and act similarly. As such, sustainability helps a company be more attractive to existing and prospective customers, partners, and employees. Acting early and innovating in these fields can increase the value of a company, regardless of the sector in which it operates.

For more content on driving sustainable practices across the pharmaceutical value chain, visit the CPHI Sustainability page.

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