As a U.N. global health platform is showing, corporate sustainability strategies on human health and the environment are becoming intertwined.
At first glance, an American pharmaceutical giant, a famed French cosmetics company, and a Danish building materials manufacturer wouldn’t appear to have much in common.
While the products they sell couldn’t be more different, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, and Rockwool share the same commitment to improving human health. For these and other companies, achieving that goal is increasingly intertwined with managing their impacts on the environment.
Making Health Everyone’s Business
The three companies are among 17 participants from 10 industries in the U.N. Global Compact’s “Health is Everyone’s Business” platform. The main focus of the platform is to encourage corporate responsibility for U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 3, which seeks to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Health is Everyone’s Business is designed to spur collaboration between companies to set a business agenda that works toward that goal.
The platform explores how businesses can contribute to healthier lives in four distinct areas: workplaces, markets, supply chains, and society. It’s the last of that group where the Bridge Collaborative—a partner in the platform along with the University of Southampton and the Global Chief Medical Officers Network—has been able to implement its cross-sector approach through the “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” initiative.
The Case for Planetary Health
The Bridge Collaborative team who worked on the project was comprised of Duke University faculty and graduate students, led by Deborah Gallagher, Professor of the Practice of Resource and Environmental Policy at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Lydia Olander, Ecosystem Services Program Director at Duke’s Nicholas Institute, and also part of the Bridge Secretariat.
Gallagher has worked extensively with the U.N. Global Compact on environmental issues, including another business-oriented platform known as “Caring for Climate.” The Global Compact invited her to apply the “muscle memory” of her experience with Caring for Climate to develop an organizational structure for Health is Everyone’s Business. While creating that structure for the new health platform, she saw an opportunity to incorporate her own area of expertise.
“We wanted to build this bridge between the environment and health through this planetary platform,” Gallagher said.
A growing number of groups, including the Bridge Collaborative, are focusing on “planetary health,” a new field making the connections between human health and environmental change. Research has shown environmental factors heavily influence many of the world’s most pressing health conditions, such as diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory infections. Effectively reducing the burden of these health issues can’t happen without addressing the underlying environmental risk factors.
Gallagher and the Duke team guided companies toward including planetary health in their discussions for the platform. During an initial meeting in September 2017, Bridge Collaborative Secretariat Chair Heather Tallis spoke about how the partnership brings together people and organizations from across disciplines to tackle global challenges. This helped emphasize that a cross-sector approach could work with Health is Everyone’s Business. Gallagher said some of the companies, such as the U.K.-based pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca, eventually championed planetary health’s inclusion. By a July 2018 workshop, the Healthy Planet-Healthy People initiative was established as part of Health is Everyone’s Business.
With planetary health now firmly part of the platform, nine companies agreed to participate in structured interviews to set priorities for the path forward. The interviews were led by Vincent Gauthier, who worked on Healthy Planet-Healthy People as a master’s student in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and, since graduating, has continued as part of the Global Compact.
As part of the interviews, companies were asked to identify future health risks that could impact them. In addition to emerging diseases and mental health, climate change surfaced as one of the most frequently cited risks.
“The interview process emphasized that many companies are thinking about future health impacts of climate change and evaluating how their value chains will be affected,” Gauthier said.
More than half of the interviewees talked specifically about their own environmental impacts and initiatives they have joined to mitigate climate change. L’Oreal representatives, for example, discussed how the company consciously takes into account the joint health and environmental effects of production and disposal of its products. In highlighting environmental goals they have set over the last three decades, Johnson & Johnson representatives explained that, in their view, good health is dependent on a healthy environment.
The interviews also highlighted that companies are not concerned about health issues purely for philanthropy or burnishing their reputations. There’s a business case to be made that improving health outcomes improves the bottom line. Essity, a Swedish health and hygiene company, runs educational campaigns to help remove social stigmas around incontinence, improving both people’s health and its ability to sell products to treat the condition. Meanwhile, Rockwool representatives noted that improving the consumer health impacts of their products ultimately increases their company’s market share.
Beyond the interviews, the Duke team published a working paper in April 2019 that looked at sustainability reports for 50 of the largest companies in the food/agriculture and textile sectors as a proxy for whether the companies are integrating their environmental and health strategies. Analysis of the sustainability reports showed 58 percent of these companies were communicating about the relationship between their environmental impacts and health outcomes. The team’s research also found that 46 percent of the companies have products, policies or social initiatives that address linked environmental and health issues.
One of the clearest cases of a company accounting for planetary health came from the sustainability report of the French food processing company Danone: “We believe a healthy body needs healthy food. And healthy food needs a healthy planet. All with healthy ecosystems and strong, resilient social structures.”
Leading By Example
In spring 2019, Gauthier moderated a series of conference calls with some of the companies participating in Healthy Planet-Healthy People. The discussions were aimed at answering key questions about corporate action that can lead to healthier environments:
- What are the benefits and challenges of integrating health and environmental strategies?
- What are the leadership attributes of companies that are making the connection between health and the environment?
- What does it look like for a company to integrate health and environmental strategies?
The main result of these discussions will be a leadership brief to guide other companies on how to create healthy environments throughout their supply chains. Expected to be presented during Climate Week in New York in September 2019, the document will include case studies to show how companies in different sectors are leading by example. The Duke team is also working to develop a call to action to mobilize companies toward health-promoting environmental measures.
As companies look to make a positive impact through their sustainability strategies, these tools could help point the way toward both a healthier planet and healthier people.
Image credits: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel (upper), Devan King/TNC (middle), Jennifer Emerling (lower)