A sustainable pharmaceutical industry?

Some weeks ago I received a very friendly email from Bayer’s PR team, offering me a range of information about all the nice things Bayer is doing. I soon found myself burried in information. It all looks so good on their website! Suspicious, somehow. Or a sign that the pharmaceutical industry is changing for real?

“Green”, “sustainable” and “corporate responsibility” have certainly been the buzzwords for 2009 – together with “crisis”. Economic and financial systems on the edge of breakdown and disapointing results at the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen. Not an easy year, but maybe one that stimulated real change towards fair and healthy business practices? Or are marketing managers just adapting their messages to a highly volatile market?

Most manufacturers and suppliers are touting their green initiatives with either “green” products or packaging that help save energy, reduce waste or exhibit solutions that reduce or manage their energy consumption, writes Janice T. Abel from ARC Advisory Group. She observes: “(…) sustainability and pharmaceutical packaging can appear to be at odds with one another. Traditionally, in pharmaceuticals – safety, efficacy and quality have been at the forefront of every initiative—not environmental friendliness. In pharmaceutical packaging, you must adhere to stringent regulations that require material traceability, good manufacturing practices (GMPs), consistent quality, product protection, and often child-resistance (…).”

Back to Bayer and its 120 pages strong Sustainability Report 2008. A pharma giant with a group turnover of almost 33 billion Euros and a net income of 1,7 billion Euros (2008), as the report’s first page points out. And: a global player with the aim to become a good corporate citizen:

“The global financial and economic crisis has clearly shown that short-term thinking and actions can have dramatic consequences. Aligning business to sustainable success has been top priority at Bayer for a long time, and this strategy is proving effective even in a diffi cult environment. Our overriding goal is to operate both successfully and sustainably. To achieve this, we want to achieve commercial success on the basis of solid business models in a way that is compatible with meeting the needs of our employees and society and protecting the environment and natural resources. We are thus committed to the tenets of sustainable development and to the 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact. In short, we are aiming for sustainability in everything we do.”

And Werner Wenning, Chairman of Bayer’s board of directors, goes on:

“We are looking to tackle this broad challenge on three levels. Firstly, with our products and services: These are designed to be innovative, benefi t people and improve their quality of life. Secondly, we want to act responsibly across the entire value-added chain – in relation to all our interest groups, especially our employees, customers, suppliers and stockholders. Thirdly, we also want to meet our responsibility to society by becoming socially involved as a good corporate citizen.”
Download Bayer’s Sustainable Development report 2008

A strong coffee and a quick google search enquiry later, I understand why Bayer spends so much energy and money on praising its sustainable development initiatives. I am surprised to find a whole group of activists solely dedicated to report about dangers produced by Bayer (Coalition against BAYER dangers) and only seconds later come across a video named “why I think Bayer is a very bad company“. 2,6 million search results for “bad bayer” alone (not all of them relevant though, Google isn’t THAT good) – the list of opinions, reports and articles about how “unsustainable” Bayer is goes on forever. Even the bees are not happy with Bayer, as business magazine Forbes reports.

Agreed, it is not easy to really change a corporation of such an unhealthy size, especially from within its structure. Even if individual people would want to do things for the better, they almost certainly couldn’t because they would be caught in a net of peer and shareholder pressure.

At least, Bayer acknowledges many of its failures and weaknesses. Let’s hope that action will follow the many words and glossy paper and that Bayer’s conflicting lobbying (it lobbies a lot) is a disease soon to be healed.

Picture credit: Conanil

Article originally published at sustainabilityforum.com

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