Planetary health may not be what immediately comes to mind when you think of Aspirin, but they’re more connected than you might realize.
Bayer AG has initiated several “100 million challenges,” including its recent investment in sustainable health products to advance the company’s 2030 sustainability commitments. They’re pouring €100 million to further enable sustainable innovation, production, and consumption of Consumer Health products including global brands such as Aspirin, Bepanthen, Claritin, and Elevit.
We’ll get to the packaging details shortly. But first, it’s important to see the connection between human health and the environment. “When you think about the environment and climate issues, we're talking about the environment as a social determinant of health,” says Daniella Foster, Global Vice President and Head of Public Affairs, Science, and Sustainability for Bayer’s Consumer Health division. “Reflecting on the past 20 years, we know that climate change has been a cause behind a growing number of health concerns, and we also know that underserved populations are particularly vulnerable.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the ESG space, and oftentimes when we talk about the environment or climate, we're usually just talking about the environment. I think one of the key pieces here that we're really trying to unite and put a focus on is that connection between human health and the environment.”
Data suggests that approximately half of the world's population does not have access to basic and essential health services, while the same populations are often in communities significantly impacted by climate, resulting in being hit from multiple sides. “Rising temperatures, poor air quality, pollen counts, all these things are increasing… this leads to heart disease, respiratory illnesses, allergies, etc. For people without access to medical care, they're really having a hard time managing or treating these conditions. This also impacts their ability to work. In some cases, it's perpetuating a cycle of poverty,” she explains.
The company is setting out to tackle the inclusive growth challenge and environmental challenge together, looking to protect people's health in both the short- and long-term, while also reaching science-based targets.
Bayer’s plan includes (1) prioritizing sustainable brands, products, and packaging, (2) urging collective industry action, and (3) targeting carbon emissions, including net zero by 2050.
One of the concepts that attracted Foster to Bayer is that they no longer separate business strategy and sustainability strategy. “They’re integrated and we bake sustainability into our business and how we think about our value chain,” she says. “The renumeration of our Board of Management is tied to our sustainability strategy and progress. So, it’s a core part of how we operate. We also have an external sustainability council that reviews our plans and progress, and they pressure test us.”
Products and packaging
Bayer has been making headway in improving the sustainability of its products and packaging for a few years, obtaining data to determine where impact can be made and how best to prioritize efforts.
With the €100 million investment, Bayer explains it is “committed to finding new solutions that inspire the sustainable creation and consumption of the company’s over-the-counter products and supplements.”
The company is targeting that by 2030 (where quality and safety permit), 100% of Bayer Consumer Health’s packaging will be recyclable or reusable and all packaging will include consumer-friendly recycling information, and the division’s packaging will include an average of 50% recycled content and 100% of purchased paper will be sustainably sourced.
In setting packaging targets, Bayer assessed the recyclability of their portfolio and identified the formats used at highest volumes—paper, plastic bottles, blister packs, and flexible tubes. Next, they evaluated the current recyclability of these formats and the technical and financial feasibility of conversion into recyclable packaging solutions, setting priorities accordingly. Their progress thus far includes:
- Shipping boxes included 80% recycled content by the end of 2021. Many initiatives already taking place at manufacturing sites gave Bayer a baseline toward the goals. Additional transformation has been driven by strong partnership with their supplier network, and continued sharing of best practices among sites. (Editor’s note: Bayer chose not to reveal its packaging suppliers.)
- Conversion started for paper packaging across global brands including Aleve, Claritin, Iberogast, and Redoxon to use certified paper from responsibly managed forests.
- A program was implemented to transition to digital marketing and reduce the footprint of the division’s printed promotional materials. Bayer has worked on prioritizing digital marketing for years, which Foster explains “makes sense from both a sustainability standpoint and reaching the consumer where they are. For instance, in some of our Latin American markets at Bayer, the government-approved use of leveraging QR codes helps educate users on a range of health topics. Consumers are getting much more comfortable with QR codes thanks to restaurants and stores incorporating them during the pandemic. Instead of printing brochures or other materials, we can create much more dynamic and sustainable content to help people take better care of themselves.”
- 100% of new product development projects are assessed for sustainability performance across health, the environment, and access.
With partnership and collective action being so powerful, Foster says she was particularly excited for the Q4 2021 launch of the Global Self Care Federation (GSCF) Environmental Charter. The GSCF counts Bayer, Sanofi, GSK, and J&J among its members working across competitive lines to deliver carbon emission reductions and more sustainable packaging. “I think this charter was a really great example of how an industry can come together in this area of environmental action and determine the areas where we all want to see progress and whereby working together, we can get farther quicker,” she says. “This is going to be critical. I always say—especially when we're talking about environment—no one company, entity, government, etc. owns the environment. We all have to work collectively and collaboratively to reach the UN sustainable development goals. I see it much more as a team sport.”
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Similar to Consumer Health, a priority area for Bayer’s Pharmaceutical division is to create change within their operations, which includes switching to green electricity and investing in projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their production facilities. The Pharma division is also working to reduce the ecological footprint of their products, but with prescription drug packaging oriented toward function, there is less optimization potential than on the Consumer Health side. While too soon to tell, Foster notes that there may be knowledge that comes from GSCF efforts that apply to pharmaceutical packaging: “When you crack that code and get to that solution, which is going to take a lot of time, then that paves the way for solutions to potentially be scaled where it makes sense, where you can ensure safety, efficacy, etc.”
Tangibles in cutting carbon
Many companies are looking to reach climate neutrality and net-zero emissions with supply chains responsible for such a large proportion of an organization’s global emissions. Bayer has an overarching commitment to climate neutrality by 2030 (Scopes 1 and 2) and net zero across the entire value chain (Scopes 1, 2 and 3) by 2050.
Progress in Consumer Health to-date includes:
- Reduction of carbon footprint across production facilities through energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, contributing to a 30% reduction in carbon emissions between 2019 and 2020 alone. As Foster explains, “When we move, we move fast.” This includes upgrading HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, representing “very unsexy but really critical updates when you're talking about energy efficiency and reduction,” she says.
- 65% of energy consumed at three Consumer Health production sites (one each in Germany, Guatemala, and Spain) is generated from renewable sources.
Bayer has monitored its carbon footprint for some time, so they had a good base understanding of their Scope 1 and 2 footprints. Their Board of Management set the intention to be climate neutral by 2030 and empowered the company to prioritize this across the value chain. Their science-based targets have been reviewed and endorsed by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
The company also has a partnership with CDP [formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project], which aims to make environmental reporting a business norm. Bayer is also working with suppliers to obtain data and understand some of the biggest opportunities to work on together on reducing their carbon footprints. Approximately 73% of Consumer Health suppliers have submitted their data.
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Accessibility to products is a major goal for Bayer Consumer Health—they set the target of expanding access to everyday health for 100 million people in underserved communities by 2030. “We know that in underserved communities, having access to over-the-counter products, nutritional products, and supplements in many cases serves as a health lifeline. We see a lot of people who are in health deserts as well, without access,” says Foster. “Layering on top of the access piece, health education and literacy are also incredibly important, and they're often overlooked. The right information and education can be extremely powerful, and we're seeing this highlighted in the midst of the pandemic we've all been living in.”
For various underserved communities, Bayer has spent time researching ethnographies to understand the challenges they face and access gaps that can be bridged, and then overlayed that information with medical needs. This way, Bayer can tailor and design access to products with specific communities in mind. Beyond sustainability criteria, the company has baked the accessibility and availability of products into their innovation pipeline.
In the Pharmaceuticals division, Bayer set a goal to expand access to modern day family planning and contraceptives for 100 million women in low- and middle-income countries. “Some may ask why family planning? We know access to family planning is essential—it improves not only women's health, but it improves overall economic opportunities,” Foster says. “It's key in terms of tackling cycles of poverty and breaking down barriers to progress for gender equality. So that's how we start to unite some of these goals.” (On a related note, New York Times best-seller “Drawdown” on climate change solutions features chapters on family planning and educating girls as key sustainability practices in reducing greenhouse gases over time.)
Foster says that transparency in these “100 million challenges” is key—they keep metrics on their site and display their methodology as they look at improving access now, not just 10 years from now.
Bayer also launched its Nutrient Gap Initiative in 2021, which is focused on expanding access to vitamins and minerals for 50 million people in underserved communities by 2030. WHO data shows that one in three people suffer from malnutrition. “We see this being most critical for pregnant women because if you don't have the right nutrition, it impacts all aspects of your life. This can exacerbate the cycle of poverty if you have children that are not born healthy, lacking nutrients,” she explains.
Not only is this prenatal focus in line with Bayer’s fundamental principle that every child should have the best start in life, but scientific research shows the importance of multiple micronutrient supplementation (MMS), having been recently placed on the WHO’s list of essential medicines.
“We know that when pregnant mothers have MMS, there's less likelihood of stunting and cognitive delays. We've partnered with several NGOs—for example, we work closely with Vitamin Angels,” notes Foster.
This is not merely a donation program. Bayer is working to create systemic change and improve the health outcomes of women via interventions with local community and healthcare workers, with wraparound nutrition and educational programs to boost adherence and meet people where they are. “The idea is that the program offers 180-day micronutrient intervention,” she highlights. “That then becomes a part of the implementation research that helps the government assess and incorporate better antenatal care guidelines into the overall healthcare system to provide better care for women.”
While this takes time, effort, and partnership, Foster likens it to the old adage of teaching people to fish to provide long-term health outcomes versus giving people a fish to eat for a day. “We’re so committed… How do you teach and how do you provide the right tools so that someone is set up for a lifetime? We prioritize impact generation. We've had a great impact, even just in 2021 we reached 20 million people globally through the Nutrient Gap Initiative.”
Things are evolving in real-time, but Bayer is starting to see the unification of sustainable packaging and expanded access. The aforementioned digital solutions, for example, offer a lot of potential. “Data is showing that underserved communities get QR codes—people like them. They’re simple and easy to use,” she explains. “This is an area where we see potential to unite human health and the environment. On one hand, if you have QR codes, you eliminate the need for things like leaflets and you can probably reduce the size of your packaging. On the other hand, you can also start to build into that QR code things like health education, literacy, and additional tools so it's in one place and easy for the consumer. We’re already starting this in some of our regions, including in Latin America.”
Drivers from all sides
The move to more sustainable practices is driven by company goals, the financial world, consumers, and employees. Bayer’s mission is “health for all, hunger for none,” and as Foster emphasizes, it’s not just the sustainability mission but the company mission. “I'm driven by it. Our team members are driven by it. When you have that as your mission and you start to think about these different aspects of sustainability and the way that we've baked it into our business, that's how it all comes together.”
ESG [environmental, social, and governance] criteria has been in the investor lexicon in different forms for approximately a decade. But the past four years have brought heightened pressure, from Blackrock’s Letter to CEOs on climate change to ratings such as the Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the most sustainably managed companies in the world (in which Bayer is listed).
Foster notes that the pandemic has accelerated this pressure even further and has shown how critical sustainability is: “For myself and for other sustainability practitioners, we've been saying this for over a decade. I think the pandemic really highlighted two key things: one, the importance of environment and, two, the importance of human health. They're also completely linked, and you can't divorce the two.”
On the employee front, sustainability is less about what you say and more about transparency: what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how you're measuring it. She says, “What we're seeing at least at Bayer that really excites me is we have a whole organization mobilized behind sustainability, which I think is critical because sustainability shouldn't just be the job of people like me. If you're embedding it into your business, it becomes a part of everyone's job… and that definitely becomes a driver of retention, of employee satisfaction, and of pride.”
There is an increasing expectation for sustainability among consumers, particularly for household names. “For every single one of our brands, sustainability is baked into the brand’s purpose. It's not something separate on the side, it's just become a part of the ethos of how we think about our brands, our products, etc.,” she notes.
Consumers are ever more adept at spotting greenwashing claims. As organizations ask themselves about the areas they can influence and make meaningful change in the short-, mid- and long-term, transparency on progress and measurable goals are critical. Bayer’s site features a section on the auditing process they go through, and progress and methodology are shared in their annual sustainability report. “In any journey that's long and ambitious, you're also going to hit challenges, and that’s ok. Anything worth doing, you're going to have roadblocks,” says Foster. “But that’s another place where that full transparency of ‘here’s what we're seeing and here’s where we need to go’ is fundamental, and where collective action can help.”
Foster, who is co-chair of the GSCF Environmental Charter committee, says that collective action is key in scaling solutions to big challenges that are truly sustainable. “I also think when you talk about systemic challenges, whether it's waste systems or climate change as a whole, these are not the kind of challenges that one government, company, etc., is going to solve on their own, nor should they. We have to work together,” she says.
Beyond the power of working across competitive lines, opportunity also lies in working with suppliers. Reflecting on her previous experience at the State Department, Foster notes that she helped set up their first office of public-private partnership at a time when these partnerships weren’t the norm. Some of the most effective public-private partnerships she saw were in the areas of health—including PEPFAR focused on HIV/AIDS—where companies, NGOs, and governments worked together to identify effective solutions.
“Sometimes just making the commitment to come together and having very clear focus areas can be the hardest bit,” says Foster. “We're now doing that through the GSCF Environmental Charter, and I think that that is going to open up a world of opportunity as we start to talk about more sustainable solutions and materials, working collaboratively with suppliers.”
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