How sustainable practices in pharma drive long-term growth

July 8, 2024
Sustainability is not merely an environmental concern but a strategic imperative that can enhance revenues, reduce costs and foster innovation

While groundbreaking advancements in gene therapy and GLP-1 drugs promise significant growth, several challenges loom for the pharma industry  — patent expirations, funding uncertainties and pricing pressures.

Amid these complexities, sustainability emerges as a crucial factor in every stage of drug manufacturing. Sustainability in pharma manufacturing is not merely an environmental concern but a strategic imperative that can enhance revenues, reduce costs and foster innovation. 

The pharma industry faces a pressing challenge: simultaneously ensuring the health of people and the planet. That said, it's no secret that the pharma industry contributes significantly to human-driven climate change, with its emissions exceeding even the automotive industry.

While recent challenges have slowed sustainability efforts, companies prioritizing environmentally friendly practices are poised for a competitive edge in the long run. This underscores the urgent need for sustainability efforts across the sector. For executives, prioritizing sustainability is essential for improving operational efficiency, reducing costs and fostering a competitive edge.

The green engine of progress 

Green chemistry is a philosophy that guides us toward environmentally friendly practices. Here, the focus is on harnessing renewable resources, minimizing waste generation and eliminating the use of hazardous materials. These principles are relevant not only to synthesizing the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) but also to drug product formulation, manufacturing and packaging. 

Sustainable practices often translate to operational efficiency, energy and water consumption savings, lower waste disposal costs and avoidance of regulatory fines. The pharma industry has made significant moves toward shifting to more environmentally friendly packaging. For example, Novo Nordisk replaced the plastic trays in its insulin pens with paper-based ones, which has reduced the weight and volume of the packaging by 80% and 50%. These sustainability changes impact their total cost of goods, reducing transportation costs.  Additionally, Novo Nordisk's customers have praised the company for its environmental leadership, which has led to greater customer loyalty and improved public perception. 

Another prime example of this shift is the growing adoption of fusion-based amorphous dispersion techniques over traditional spray drying dispersion (SDD) methods. This innovative approach, primarily for generating amorphous solid dispersions (ASDs), eliminates the need for harmful solvents and minimizes waste generation, perfectly aligning with green chemistry principles.  

ASDs play a vital role in enhancing the bioavailability of poorly soluble drugs. Traditional methods, like SDDs, commonly use organic solvents, significantly impacting the environment. It's estimated that commercial spray-dried products utilize around 8,000 metric tons of solvent annually. The increasing use of more toxic solvents, such as dichloromethane (DCM) and tetrahydrofuran (THF), worsens environmental impacts due to their low solubility with new drug molecules, leading to air and water pollution and posing severe health risks to workers and surrounding communities. 

These environmentally harmful consequences emphasize the need for greener, innovative alternatives. Fusion-based technologies offer a reduced environmental impact and improve drug bioavailability by eliminating solvent usage. This approach addresses environmental concerns, simplifies manufacturing processes, lowers costs and accelerates development timelines. 

High-energy fusion techniques, for instance, offer high-throughput processing in a much smaller footprint to form stable amorphous dispersions. These methods have a significantly smaller operational footprint, generate less operational waste and require fewer production resources than traditional solvent-based processes. Additionally, the absence of solvents simplifies regulatory compliance and reduces the need for extensive environmental, health and safety (EH&S) management systems. 

By adopting advanced fusion-based technologies, manufacturers can produce higher-performing ASDs with enhanced sustainability and scalability. These advancements support the industry's broader goals of reducing carbon footprints and promoting environmental responsibility without compromising formulation performance and overall health outcomes. 

Beyond the environmental benefits, optimizing manufacturing through such methods translates to substantial company cost savings. By eliminating unnecessary steps and streamlining procedures, efficiency is significantly improved. In essence, this green revolution promises a future where pharmaceutical manufacturing is not just about creating lifesaving drugs but also about safeguarding our planet for generations to come. 

Investment trends in sustainable technologies 

Despite the funding challenges faced during the pandemic, there has been a resurgence in investment in sustainable technologies. The pharma industry is witnessing a steady increase in funding for technology-driven sustainability initiatives. Investors recognize that these innovations offer superior risk-adjusted returns and align with broader sustainability goals. This trend reflects a growing awareness of the long-term benefits of sustainable practices in drug manufacturing. 

Deloitte Center for Health Solutions survey sheds light on the growing focus on sustainability within the biopharmaceutical industry. The 2023 survey among 105 global biopharma supply chain executives revealed a strong commitment to reducing environmental impact: 

  • Over half of the respondents reported actively working on initiatives to minimize water use (64%), source sustainable materials (59%) and design environmentally friendly supply chains (57%) 
  • Nearly half (47%) are actively developing 'smart factories' to optimize energy use, manufacturing efficiency and waste reduction 

Technology also plays a crucial role in enhancing sustainability efforts. The survey found that 24% of executives expect their companies to offer stakeholders real-time insights into their sustainability progress within the next two years. This improved transparency will likely strengthen communication and accountability around these initiatives. 

Building greener, stronger supply chains 

The pharma industry relies heavily on its supply chain, but this chain can also have a significant environmental impact. Building a greener supply chain isn't just good for the planet; it's a strategic advantage for pharma companies. Reducing waste, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain is critical to true environmental responsibility. A sustainable supply chain becomes more resilient to disruptions, ensuring patients have uninterrupted access to vital medications.  

With sustainability at its core, forward-thinking companies are developing robust and eco-friendly supply chains to foster a healthier future and they're doing it with the help of innovative solutions. Here are some of the ways pharma companies are implementing sustainable change through the use of technology and the benefits that follow: 

Transparency: building trust and resilience
Pharma companies enhance their supply chains by promoting open communication with suppliers and stakeholders. This transparency provides end-to-end visibility, improving decision-making and resilience against disruptions. By partnering with vendors committed to sustainability, companies ensure that every aspect of the supply chain aligns with environmental goals, focusing on renewable energy, waste minimization and recycling initiatives. For example, blockchain technology is increasingly used to create immutable records of transactions and processes, allowing for greater traceability and accountability. This transparency builds trust with consumers and partners and enables companies to quickly identify and address any sustainability issues within their supply chains. 

Empowering with technology: adapting to change and going green
Enhanced supply chain visibility helps companies proactively address regulatory changes and unforeseen challenges. This agility enables quick adaptation to new environmental regulations and market demands. Cutting-edge real-time monitoring and data analysis technology further boosts transparency and efficiency, ensuring measurable and impactful sustainability efforts.

For instance, Internet of Things (IoT) devices can monitor environmental conditions in real time, optimizing energy use and reducing waste. Advanced analytics can predict potential supply chain disruptions, allowing companies to take preventive measures. These technological tools are crucial in reducing the carbon footprint and ensuring compliance with evolving environmental standards. 

Aligning business goals with sustainability
Improving patient health is central to the movement towards sustainability. Stakeholders value a solid commitment to sustainable practices, demonstrated through a thorough review of processes. Embracing sustainability is not just socially responsible but also strategically beneficial, strengthening long-term relationships with patients, vendors and the broader community. Companies increasingly incorporate Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria into their business strategies, ensuring that sustainability goals align with overall business objectives. This alignment fosters a culture of responsibility and innovation, driving continuous improvement in environmental impact and patient care.

Financial benefits: green practices, healthy returns
Investing in sustainability yields significant financial gains through increased revenue and cost savings. Pharma companies can optimize operations by adopting green chemistry principles, revamping manufacturing processes and building secure, transparent supply chains. Green chemistry involves designing chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances, leading to safer products and less environmental pollution.

Additionally, energy-efficient manufacturing techniques and sustainable sourcing of raw materials can reduce operational costs. This alignment of investor, patient and innovation efforts drives continuous improvement in treatments and patient outcomes. Companies that lead in sustainability are also more likely to attract investment and talent, further enhancing their competitive edge and market position.

A strategic imperative for a thriving future 

Prioritizing sustainability in the pharma industry is a strategic imperative for long-term success. By embracing sustainable practices throughout their operations, companies can navigate current environmental and social challenges, leverage technological advancements and build a more resilient future for themselves and their communities. 

This journey requires a comprehensive review of processes, ensuring patient health outcomes remain paramount. A steadfast commitment to sustainability goes beyond internal actions. It's about fostering long-term relationships with all stakeholders – patients, vendors and others – by demonstrating a dedication to social responsibility and strategic advantage. In short, sustainability is not just the right thing to do; it's a wise business decision that strengthens the industry's foundation for a thriving future. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Hickman | Chief Business Officer and incoming CEO at AustinPx

Elizabeth Hickman serves as Chief Business Officer and incoming CEO at AustinPx, a leading contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) specializing in bioavailability enhancement of orally delivered small molecule drug candidates. Elizabeth brings over two decades of expertise in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors, formerly serving in leadership positions for West Pharmaceutical Services, Catalent and Pii. Elizabeth holds a BA in Microbiology from The University of Texas at Austin and an MBA in Marketing from San Diego State University.